ST. CLOUD -- The Wildcats head back to state where New London-Spicer won a championship in 2009 after a runner-up finish the year before.
The Section 6AAA title game didn't come easy at Husky Stadium on a fine evening for football on the second day of November.
The Wildcats, helped by four Tiger turnovers, whipped their old West Central Conference rivals from Morris/Chokio-Alberta 28-14.
The Cats (6-4) knocked off an undefeated team rated among the top 5 in Class 3A.
"That was fun," crowed one NLS offensive linemen as the final seconds ticked off the clock. "It feels good to beat an undefeated team."
While the difference on the tote board was two touchdowns, statically it was a draw.
First downs were 15 to 14, favoring NLS. The Tigers totaled 264 yards in 52 plays to 260 in 51 plays for NLS.
Oh, yes, turnovers favored the Cats, four to zero.
And that's the way the scoring started. With the Tigers driving toward the NLS goal, Wildcat free safety Joey Dreier stepped in front of Tigers' tight end Nic Vipond and grabbed the Jake Torgerson throw. He buzzed untouched up the stadium sideline 87 yards for a touchdown -- the senior's fourth interception this fall and first TD.
"I saw (Vipond) open and flowed with the play and ran right in front of him for the pick six," said Dreier.
The Tigers came right back with a 77-yard drive. A 34-yard halfback pass by Tanner Picht hit wide receiver Chandler Erickson in full stride who reached over the close coverage of cornerback Corbin Schwartz. Picht passed again to Austin Dierks for the two-point add and what would be the Tigers sole lead of the evening.
Now the New London-Spicer offense looks to, who else, Austin Stone, for critical yards.
The senior running back capped a 71-yard drive by going the final 23 yards in three snaps for a 14-8 lead after Adam Essler's conversion run.
There was just 1:49 left before halftime but Torgerson would direct a 57-yard Morris scoring drive. The big play was a 44-yard pass completion to wideout Logan Manska who fought through heavy coverage by Cats' safety Logan Brink. Fullback Jordan Staples did the rest, an 11-yard burst and then three more for the score with 16 seconds left.
Morris/CA went for two and the lead but linebacker Reid Johnson read the play and tackled Tom Holland behind the line of scrimmage preserving a 15-14 lead to the break.
The second half was closely fought again but the Wildcats were winning the line of scrimmage more clearly. The Tigers lost two fumbles and Essler made a pick in the final minute to seal the victory.
Meanwhile, Stone just wouldn't go down. The 190-pound senior would finish with 179 yards in 30 carries.
The third quarter and the first 10 minutes of the fourth quarter went scoreless. The Cats got some breathing space when quarterback Ryan Vraa hooked up with Essler on a 19-yard TD on a fourth-and-six.
"That was a variation of an old play we put in this week," said Vraa. "Adam was split wide right and found a hole in the zone. My offensive line made it easy for me. They don't get a lot of credit but do a great job."
But the Morris defense stopped Stone just inches short of the goal line keeping it a one possession game, 21-14 with two minutes left.
The Tigers got a bad break when the NLS kickoff was mishandled and Chris Nelson, a defensive tackle, recovered at the 21. The Cats punched it in four plays later, capped by Stone's 6-yard TD run.
"We knew they'd be good," said the Tigers' Holland, who rushed for 57 yards in 11 carries. "We played our hearts out but we had too many turnovers."
Holland said the Cats were fast but probably no bigger than several other teams they'd played and beaten, notably Atwater-Cosmos-Grove City and Albany.
"We have 18 seniors and the season was something special," added Holland.
NLS coach Dan Essler said playing in a Class 4A conference gets you prepared for the postseason grind.
"It definitely helps playing against front lines with 250-pound tackles every week," he said. "We were very concerned playing this team. They are very skilled and it showed tonight."
The Wildcats (6-4) will play the winner of today's game at Husky stadium matching Annandale, another Wright Conference member, and Foley.
Morris/CA ends the season 9-1.
NLS 28, Morris/CA 14
NLS (7-4) 7 8 0 13 -- 28
Morris/CA (9-1) 0 14 0 0 -- 14
NLS - Joey Dreier 87 interception return (Daiton Johnson kick)
MCA - Chandler Erickson 34 pass from Tanner Picht (Austin Dierks pass from Picht)
NLS - Austin Stone 1 run (Adam Essler run)
MCA - Jordan Staples 3 run (run failed)
NLS - Essler 19 pass from Ryan Vraa (run failed)
NLS - Stone 6 run (Johnson kick)
First downs: 15 ... Rushing: 44-222 ... Passing (com-att-yds-int.): 3-7-38-0 ... Fumbles lost: 0 ... Penalties: 1-10
Rushing: Austin Stone 30-179, Adam Essler 6-9, Grant Vagle 3-26, Ryan Vraa 3-(-7), Jarrett Hatlestad 1-12, Ben Beuning 1-3 ... Passing: Vraa 3-7-38-0 ... Receiving: Stone 1-2, Essler 2-36 ... Punting: Aaron Ruter 2-56 (28.0) ... Interceptions: Joey Dreier 1, Adam Essler 1 ... Fumble recoveries: Corbin Schwartz 1, Chris Nelson 1 ... Tackles (solo-assist): Reid Johnson 8-2, Brink 7-5, Daiton Johnson 5-7, Beuning 6-1, Dreier 5-3, Nic Bergeson 4-1, Zach Steffl 3-3, Vagle 4-2, Schwartz 3-0, Jarod Vossen 3-1, Nelson 2-2, Hatlestad 1-0, Cameron Steffen 1-0, Trey Austvold 1-0, Colton Henjum 0-1, Shane Zylstra 0-1, Mitch Omen 0-2 ... QB sacks: Bergeson 1
First downs: 14 ... Rushing: 38-123 ... Passing (com-att-yds-int.): 11-14-141-2 ... Fumbles lost: 2 ... Penalties: 7-50
Rushing: Tom Holland 11-57, Jordan Staples 8-32, Tanner Picht 8-22, Jake Torgerson 8-8, Connor Metzger 2-0, Chandler Erickson 1-4 ... Passing: Torgerson 10-13-107-2, Picht 1-1-34-0 ... Receiving: Logan Manska 2-44, Erickson 3-47, Picht 4-42, Nic Vipond 1-9, Staples 1-(-1) ... Punting: Picht 3-104 (34.7) ... Interceptions: none ... Fumble recoveries: none ... Tackles (solo-assist): n/a ... QB sacks: n/a