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Prep Bowl: Wildcats edged out in frenzied Class AAA final

Adam Essler escapes tacklers in the St. Croix Lutheran secondary on a 67-yard touchdown dash to start the New London-Spicer scoring in the first quarter of the Class AAA state championship game Saturday at the Metrodome. The Crusaders defeated NLS 48-44. Tribune photo by Rand Middleton.1 / 2
New London-Spicer defensive end Chris Nelson halts St. Croix Lutheran's Hans Klingenschmitt after a short gain in the first quarter of the Class AAA state championship game Saturday at the Metrodome. But the Crusaders' senior running back would finish with 179 yards in 22 carries in a 48-44 victory. Tribune photo by Rand Middleton.2 / 2

MINNEAPOLIS – In a wild game that looked like it was being contested by two guys sitting on a couch playing Madden NFL, the biggest play of all was a modest 5-yard quarterback keeper.

St. Croix Lutheran’s David Ponath dove for a first down after New London-Spicer had called its final timeout with about two minutes to play, and the Crusaders won their second Class AAA state championship in three years, outlasting the Wildcats 48-44 Saturday in the final Prep Bowl at the Metrodome.

Of the 13 touchdowns scored, only one came within 10 yards. Ten TDs went for 30 or more yards and four came from 60 yards or more.

NLS’ Adam Essler rolled up 318 total yards and scored four touchdowns. But the Crusaders gashed the Wildcats for 572 total yards, 417 of which came on the ground.

“We knew we had to put up points in this game,” said Essler, who completed a 78-yard kickoff return with 2:20 left to make it a four-point game. “And we did, just not enough.”

The Wildcats were shooting for their first state championship since its 2009 team edged Glencoe-Silver Lake 28-21, also in a frenzied affair. They finished 10-3. St. Croix Lutheran, the 2011 champ, ended its championship season 11-2.

 “We were positively out to win this game,” said NLS head coach Dan Essler. “But it's been a pleasure to coach this team and an honor to coach in the state final."

Few casual observers – and even some serious ones – gave St. Croix Lutheran much of a chance against a Wildcats team that had averaged almost 50 points per game in the postseason, especially after the Crusaders scored their only points in a semifinal victory over Proctor on a field goal as time expired.

 But the Wildcats had seen enough video of the Crusaders to know that game was an anomaly.

 “We knew they were pretty good,” said Wildcats receiver Jarrett Hatlestad. “We knew it was going to be a high-scoring game.”

 NLS was intent on forcing the Crusaders to rely on pitching the ball, the third choice in their option offense. But SCL’s Trever Koester bolted 68 yards up the middle on the game’s first play for a touchdown.

 "That hurt mentally,” Dan Essler said. “We were prepared to stop the dive and force the quarterback to keep or pitch. And on the first play, all they do is a simple handoff and score. That was a killer."

 The teams more or less swapped first-half scoring plays – long ones – and were tied 20-20 at halftime. But Ponath, who seldom throws, hit 5-of-6 throws for 155 yards and three touchdowns. His third scoring pass, a perfect 28-yard strike to Caleb Olson, on the first play of the fourth quarter put the Crusaders ahead 34-28.

 On its next drive, NLS turned the ball over on downs at the SCL 20 yard line, and one play later, the Crusaders’ Joe Werz ran 69 yards for a score that made it 42-28 with 7:40 to play.

 The Crusaders’ pitch plays that the Wildcats desired were instead killing them.

 “We thought they struggled (in previous games) with the pitch in their option,” Adam Essler said. “But they did it (Saturday) and they hurt us with it.”

 “A lot of people made some errors (on defense), including me,” Hatlestad said. “We could have stopped them on many of those drives but didn’t do it.”

 Despite the defensive breakdowns, the NLS offense didn’t fold. Quarterback Ryan Vraa hit Hatlestad for a 35-yard TD and Trey Austvold ran in the 2-point conversion to pull the Wildcats within six at 42-36.

 But, again, the Wildcats couldn’t shut down the Crusaders when it counted. On their first play after the kick off, SCL’s Hans Klingenschmitt broke free on a 54-yard run to the NLS 21, and he scored the clinching TD five plays later.

 Hatlestad returned the ensuing kick 14 yards, then pitched back to Essler, who weaved his way the remaining 64 yards into the end zone, then tacked on the 2-point conversion to again put the Wildcats on the brink of an epic comeback with the score 48-44 with 2:20 left.

 The Wildcats almost came up with a bobbled onside kick but the Crusaders recovered and NLS was forced to use its final two timeouts. Ponath’s first-down lunge sealed the game.

 “We were resilient,” Vraa said. “We knew we could keep coming back. But it was a play here, a play there.

 "It's hard to believe how explosive they were,” Vraa said. “They matched us. But it was a blast going out in a game like this with my family, my brothers."

Tom Larson

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

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