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Class AAA Football: Wildcats run wild all way to state championship game

New London-Spicer's Chris Nelson (30) and Jared Travis (50) put the heat on Rochester Lourdes quarterback Michael Brandt in the second half of a Class AAA state semifinals game Saturday at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. The Wildcats' defense dominated Lourdes in the second half and NLS earned a trip to the state championship game with a 36-16 victory. Tribune photo by Tom Larson.1 / 3
New London-Spicer Adam Essler breaks a tackle on one of his 18 carries Saturday in the Class AAA state semifinals game at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Essler ran for 171 yards and two touchdowns in the Wildcats' 36-16 victory. Tribune photo by Tom Larson.2 / 3
New London-Spicer offensive lineman Nick Kester (67) shows his appreciation for Adam Essler's efforts in the Wildcats' 36-16 victory over Rochester Lourdes on Saturday in the Class AAA state semifinals at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Tribune photo by Tom Larson.3 / 3

MINNEAPOLIS — The way New London-Spicer football team’s playoff run has unfolded, crediting its defense with a victory is kind of like saying the paint job is responsible for the success of NASCAR legend Jimmie Johnson’s car.

It’s there and looks good to some, but it’s not what people notice on Victory Lane.

And yet NLS’ nitrous-fueled offense gladly held the checkered flag aloft with a Wildcats’ defense that made possible a 36-16 win over Rochester Lourdes on Saturday in the Class AAA state semifinals at the Metrodome.

While the revved-up NLS offense was once again surging up and down the field, piling up yards and points, an early game goal line stand and a savage attack on Lourdes’ flagging offense in the second half were the key elements putting the Wildcats back in the state title game for the first time since its 2009 championship season.

Already trailing and in danger of falling behind by two scores early in the second quarter, the Wildcats stuffed the Eagles three times from inside the two yard line, turning the ball over on downs.

One play later, Adam Essler got loose for a 92-yard touchdown run and quarterback Ryan Vraa connected with Brett Olson on the 2-point conversion. While it was only an 8-7 NLS lead, there was a sense the Eagles would never again regain momentum.

“We made that goal line stop and I think that was the turning point in the game,” said Essler, who ran for 171 yards and two touchdowns. “We scored right away after that and we took off from there.”

NLS (11-2) plays St. Croix Lutheran (11-2) for the Class AAA championship at 1 p.m., Nov. 30 at the Metrodome. St. Croix Lutheran advanced with a 3-0 win over Proctor on Saturday.

The Wildcats arrived at their pinnacle in customary fashion. Coming into the Lourdes game, NLS was averaging 54 points per game in the playoffs.

On Saturday, the Wildcats blistered the Metrodome turf. They rolled up 317 rushing yard and 454 total yards. After getting virtually nothing going its first two drives, NLS followed up the game-turning goal line stand with five touchdowns in its next five full possessions.

“We’re confident in our offense,” said NLS quarterback Ryan Vraa, who connected on 11 of 13 passes for 137 yards and a 10-yard TD pass to Shane Zylstra in the second quarter. “A couple of stops isn’t going to get us down. We’ve been known to score points in bunches so we knew if we could get that and get some momentum, it would be hard to beat us.”

But it had to concern the Wildcats that they were giving 31 points per game prior to Saturday’s game. They scored 56 but gave up 30 points to Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton last week, and the 46 points Annandale scored against them in the sections two weeks ago would have been a discomfiting stat had they not put up 66 points in that game.

After surrendering the two first-half scores, the NLS defense punished Rochester Lourdes in the second half, holding the high-powered Eagles to just a field goal, and that came only after Lourdes failed to convert with first-and-goal at the NLS nine yard line.

Lourdes managed just 89 of its 330 total yards in the second half. The Eagles’ running game picked up just 34 of their 197 rushing yards in the second half — they came into the game averaging 304 yards per game — and quarterback Michael Brandt, after completing 3 of 4 throws for 78 yards in the first half, hit just 5 of 12 passes for 55 yards in the second. Essler intercepted one of his attempts and Chris Nelson sacked him once.

Stats from the game don’t include quarterback knock-downs, but Brandt was picking himself up off the turf seemingly every time he dropped to pass.

“We hit them hard,” NLS head coach Dan Essler said. “That was a huge momentum swing, with that goal line stand in the first half. You could see (the Eagles) were very disappointed.”

After Vraa and Zylstra hooked up to make it 14-7 Wildcats, Jarrett Hatlestad broke free for a 27-yard touchdown run with 2-1/2 minutes left in the half for a 20-7 lead.

Despite the tides turning against them, the Eagles hung tough, with McKay Carstens scoring from 5 yards out in the final minute of the half to cut the NLS lead to 20-13 at the break.

But any hope that the Eagles would recover were dashed early in the second half when a Lourdes drive stalled and Essler returned a punt 30 yards deep into the Eagles end. After two Essler runs, fullback Ben Beuning barreled into the line and was met by several Eagles. Beuning appeared dead in the water but he spun away from the pile and rambled into the end zone from 20 yards out. Essler tacked on the 2-point conversion and the Wildcats led 28-13.

Brandt hit the field goal from 25 yards out, but Essler and the Wildcats countered with a score on their next possession and the outcome was decided.

“It’s everything, it’s incredible,” Vraa said of reaching the championship game. “I can’t believe it’s here, that we’re doing it.”

But Dan Essler can. His undefeated 2009 team scored fewer points but also gave up fewer points than his current squad. But there comes a point when numbers are just thrown out the window.

“They’re very similar teams,” Dan Essler said. “The goal for this team from the get-go was to win this thing. That ‘09 team had that same mindset.”

NLS 36, Rochester Lourdes 16

NLS (10-2)           0 20 16 0 — 36

RL (10-2)              7 6 3 0 — 16

R – Kane Carstens 4 run (Michael Brandt kick)

N – Adam Essler 92 run (Brett Olson pass from Ryan Vraa)

N – Shane Zylstra 10 pass from Vraa (run failed)

N – Jarrett Hatlestad 27 run (pass failed)

R – McKay Carstens 5 run (kick failed)

N – Ben Beuning 20 run (Essler run)

R – Brandt 25 FG

N – Essler 4 run (Vraa run)

New London-Spicer

Team statistics

First downs: 20 … Rushing: 43-317 … Passing (com-att-yds-int.): 11-14-137-0 … Fumbles lost: none … Penalties: 6-55

Individual statistics

Rushing: Adam Essler 18-171, Jarrett Hatlestad 8-110, Ben Beuning 7-38, Trey Austvold 6-14, James Magnuson 1-2, Alex Groff 1-(-2), Ryan Vraa 2-(-16) … Passing: Ryan Vraa 11-13-137-0, Jarrett Hatlestad 0-1-0-0 ... Receiving: Shane Zylstra 6-92, Adam Essler 2-7, Ethan Bohlsen 1-22, Chris Nelson 1-15, Jarrett Hatlestad 1-1 … Punting: Ryan Vraa 2-38.5 … Interceptions: Adam Essler 1 … Fumble recoveries: Adam Essler 1 … Tackles (solo-assist): Trey Austvold 9, Austin Evans 4, Ben Beuning 4 … QB sacks: Chris Nelson 1

Rochester Lourdes

Team statistics

First downs: 12 … Rushing: 38-197 … Passing (com-att-yds-int.): 8-16-133-1 … Fumbles lost: 1 … Penalties: 2-7

Individual statistics

Rushing: McKay Carstens 11-72, Kane Carstens 15-57, Michael Brandt 8-27, Luke Shelerud 3-23, Zach Hillman 1-18 … Passing: Michael Brandt 8-16-133-1 ... Receiving: James Ustby 2-75, McKay Carstens 2-30, Daniel Burriss 2-10, Kane Carstens 1-19, Ryan Braun 1(-1) … Punting: Tim Vassallo 2-34 … Interceptions: none … Fumble recoveries: none … Tackles (solo-assist): Mason Carstens 8, Adam Hannan 6 … QB sacks: McKay Carstens 1

Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

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