WILLMAR -- When auditions were held to fill the void at running back, a compact sophomore made an early impact on the practice field.
On Friday, in the setting sun, on a perfect 75-degree evening with well over a thousand fans at Hodapp Field on Labor Day Weekend, the Willmar Cardinals lifted the curtain on a new season revealing 5-foot-6, 165-sopomore Michael Heitzman lining up in the backfield with third-year starting quarterback Alex Grove.
By the end of the first quarter Grove had scored one touchdown and Heitzman two more, plus returning a kickoff 60 yards to set up another Grove TD run, this one in the second quarter, as the Cardinals pulled away to a 27-6 lead on the way to 40-19 conquest of Buffalo, a foe in Willmar's new section, 6AAAAA.
The Cardinals rolled up 224 yards on the ground and another 100 in the air.
The Bison (2-7 last year) kept coming but couldn't get closer than two scores.
Down 27-13 at half and with quarterback Jason Senger moving his team toward a score junior cornerback Tyler Stegeman anticipated a pass in the flat, picked it off and returned it 82 yards for a 33-12 lead. Stegeman made another outstanding play for a second pick but it was nullified by a late hit.
Heitzman, once a Cardinal ball boy, picked up 124 yards in 21 carries. Back-up guard Anthony Woods sprang Heitzman on a 41-yard scoring burst up the gut in the opening minutes.
Grove hit on 11 of 24 passes for 100 yards favoring 6-foot-5 junior Austin Rambow, who finished with seven catches for 76 yards and a late score. Grove, who ran for 76 yards in 8 snaps, was sacked once and intercepted twice.
Senger threw for 276 yards on 23 of 42 with two picks. The Bison rushed for 84 yards.
Linebacker Jordan Geurtz was in on 13 tackles. A Josh Kelly interception and runback in the first quarter set up a 3-yard TD drive in the first quarter. Buzzy Tollefson and Stegeman were each in on 8 tackles.
Willmar travels to Fergus Falls next Friday to begin the Central Lakes campaign and his back at Hodapp Field on Sept 14 to face Brainerd.
Willmar 40, Buffalo 19
Buffalo 7 6 6 0 -- 19
Willmar 20 7 6 7 -- 40
W- Alex Grove 1 run (kick fail)
W - Michael Heitzman 42 run (Patrick Courtney kick)
W - Heitzman 1 run (Courtney kick)
B - Austin Youngs 41 pass from Jason Senger (kick good)
W - Grove 7 run (Courtney kick)
B - Senger 1 run (kick blocked by Cass Herzog)
W - Tyler Stegeman 82 interception return (kick fail)
B - Youngs 57 yard pass from Senger (run fail)
W - Austin Rambow 24 pass from Grove (Courtney kick)
First downs: 13 ... Rushing: 19-84 ... Passing (com-att-yds-int.): 23-42-276-2 ... Fumbles lost: 1 ... Penalties: 4-25
Rushing: Jason Senger 7-12, Austin Ellefson 10-63, Matthew Ruhr 1-4, Ethan Freer 1-5 ... Passing: Senger 23-42-276-2 ... Receiving: Freer 10-74, Austin Youngs 8-149, Mitch Valli 1-4, Andrew Iverson 2-10, Hunter Thompson 1-35, Ellefson 1-4 ... Punting: Senger ... Interceptions: Freer 1
First downs: 14 ... Rushing: 36-224 ... Passing (com-att-yds-int.): 11-24-100-2 ... Fumbles lost: 0 ... Penalties: 4-37
Rushing: Michael Heitzman 21-124, Alex Grove 8-76, Chris Cunningham 3-14, Cole Hagen 2-2 ... Passing: Grove 11-24-100-2 ... Receiving: Austin Rambow 7-76, Patrick Courtney 2-14, Hunter Mottinger 1-4, Brandon Christenson 1-6 ... Punting: Zech Streed n/a ... Interceptions: Josh Kelly 1, Tyler Stegeman 1 ... Fumble recoveries: Stegeman 1 ... Tackles (solo-assist): Buzzy Tollefson 2-6, Sean Zuidema 1-1, Chris Cunningham 4-4, Zech Streed 1-7, Stegeman 4-4, Jordan Geurtz 6-7, Cole Hagen 2-3, Josh Kelly 2-4, Joey Lee 0-2, Cass Herzog 1-1 .... QB sacks: Cole Hagen -7, Anthony Wood -10 ... Tackle for loss: Streed, Stegeman, Geurtz.