Sports editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on the 2009 state championship New London-Spicer football team. Today’s story looks at the championship game against Glencoe-Silver Lake. Saturday’s story looks at the run up to the Prep Bowl.
NEW LONDON — As New London-Spicer aimed for its first football championship, Glencoe-Silver Lake was trying to bookend a decade of dominance at the Prep Bowl.
Winning state titles in 2000 and 2003, the Panthers had nine state appearances in the 2000s, accumulating a record of 115-19 over the decade.
G-SL had its eyes on a fourth straight Class AAA state championship when it met up with NLS for Prep Bowl XXVIII on Nov. 28, 2009 at the Metrodome.
“I wouldn’t say we were intimate at all, but we definitely respected their program and all of their accomplishments up until that point,” said tight end Aaron Jenny. “We loved that we had a juggernaut standing in our way and wouldn’t want it any other way.
“Give us the best so we can prove who is the best in the end.”
NLS did that day more than 10 years ago to claim its first state football championship.
Jayme Moten, the junior quarterback for the Wildcats, never envisioned a time his team would lose, even with Class AAA’s top team of the 2000s looming.
“I kind of had the (Michael) Jordan thing where I’d find one or two things that would make you mad,” Moten said. “Against (Minneapolis) North, the key was for us to prove we are a very solid team and just go out and play our game. Kasson-Mantorville, people were very hard on us about being a running football team and me being a running QB and how they were going to send pressure.”
Moten continued, “Glencoe, they were the team that hadn’t lost to anybody. I remember it being all, of course you’re going to play them in the championship.”
Upset-minded NLS found success right away. On their first possession, the Wildcats capped off an eight-play, 47-yard drive when tailback Jake Essler punched in a 1-yard touchdown run for a 6-0 lead.
That was all G-SL was going to give up until the fourth quarter.
A brick-wall defense was the Panthers’ hallmark in 2009 with a state-best (all classes) 4.6 points allowed per game. They opened the year with four straight shutouts and had eight in total.
Prior to the championship game, G-SL allowed 36 points, with 14 coming from Fairmont in the Section 3AAA championship game, which the Panthers won 44-14.
“They were solid everywhere,” NLS head coach Dan Essler said of G-SL’s defense. “They had (Ben) Slater at middle linebacker. He was 6-foot-1, 6-2, 220 pounds in that 5-3 defense. You couldn’t block him.
“We couldn’t run the ball up the middle. We tried running sweeps (so that) we might be able to get some yards.”
A run-oriented offense out of the I- and pro-formation sets, the Wildcats were limited to 2.5 yards per carry on the day.
“That was maybe one of the worst games I’ve had,” said Jake Essler, who was held to 42 yards on 16 carries. “That was more of a credit to Glencoe-Silver Lake.”
Likewise, NLS was stuffing the Panthers’ power run game as G-SL had 121 yards on 35 rushing attempts.
“That was definitely the forefront of everything for us,” linebacker John Nething said of slowing down the run. “They were a lot like Albany. They have their system and they’ll run their plays, and they get some plays when they take a shot. And they did that successfully against us.”
So used to trying to stop the run, the Panthers burned the Wildcats with a play-action pass up the middle from quarterback Kyler Anderson to Aaron Lueders for a 39-yard touchdown to take a 7-6 lead that would last up to halftime.
With 3:23 left in the third quarter, Lueders bumped his way through his linemen and several missed tackles for a 3-yard rushing score and a 14-6 Panthers lead.
“What I remember is when they’d run something up the gut or outside, they’d pull two guards,” said NLS defensive end Justin Zylstra. “When they’d run my direction, I’d have two or three guys to get through before the ball carrier. It was like running through a brick wall.”
The offense was stalling and there was frustration brewing. That’s when NLS decided to open the playbook up.
Making the switch
Moten admits that there were times he was frustrated running the Wildcats’ run-oriented offense. NLS had a spread-out shotgun formation in the playbook, but why mess with success on a 13-0 team?
“I was confused why they wouldn’t let us do it,” Moten said about running the spread. “We hit Glencoe and we were getting our butts kicked. So I remember Jake Essler and Luke Peterson going over to Gus (Chad Gustafson, NLS’ offensive coordinator) and saying, hey, open our playbook. Show us everything.
“Then I was telling him, let me throw it. Let’s go spread. If we’re going to lose, let us lose swinging, you know?”
Even Gustafson could see the offense needed a spark.
“The third, it got tough. We could not move the ball,” Gustafson said. “We had several penalties, which had a lot to do with playing in (the Metrodome) and the noise and getting the count right.”
Down a score with the fourth quarter looming, Gustafson made the switch.
“Jayme was talking with me late in the third saying we got that spread,” Gustafson said. “I was like, it’s now or never.”
Kyle Stevens, who was the play-by-play announcer for NLS games at the time for Lakeland Broadcasting, remembers perking up when Moten lined up in the gun.
“All of a sudden, the fourth quarter started and they just went wide,” Stevens said. “I guarantee (on the audio) there’s a moment of shock between Paul (Beuning) and I when they came out in four-wide shotgun and it was like, wait, what is going on? And then it worked.”
The first play of the fourth quarter, Moten turned to his right and hit Peterson on a bubble screen. Thanks to some downfield blocks from Jake Essler and Sam Schmid, Peterson sprinted into the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown to cut the deficit to 14-12.
“That set the tone,” Peterson said. “The rest of that quarter, it was back-and-forth, big play after big play. It was a crazy experience and I won’t forget it.”
NLS’ momentum was quickly snapped away. Eleven seconds after Peterson’s touchdown, G-SL burned the Wildcats once again on a play-action pass from Anderson to Lueders, this time from 65 yards out to pull ahead 21-12.
With the playbook open, NLS got tricky on the next drive with a flea flicker at midfield. Moten’s deep heave ended up in Erik Tengwall’s hands. Trying to stay upright with a G-SL defender spinning him around, Tengwall fell past the goal line for a 54-yard score. On the two-point conversion, Moten found Jenny in the end zone to cut the Panthers’ lead to 21-20 with 9:45 left to play.
“We practiced that flea flicker every week and I remember Jayme in particular asking why we keep practicing it when we never use it,” Gustafson said. “We thought we had (G-SL) set up, they had one corner we thought we could beat and it could not have worked any better.”
There was plenty of work to do, but Moten had a chip on his shoulder. This was the state championship and he wanted the ball in his hand.
“Jayme’s a gamer; he’s a true competitor,” said wide receiver Brandon Zylstra. “He will do whatever he has to do to win. We had all the trust and faith that he’d get it to work.”
Both juniors on the 2009 squad, Moten and Brandon Zylstra found each other often in the fourth quarter. While Brandon had just 18 receptions on the year, five came in the Prep Bowl for 56 yards.
“In one of those final drives, I ran three hitches and we went 3-for-3 on that,” Brandon said. “I’d go to the sideline and say they’re way off me, let’s do it again.”
The connection between Moten and Jenny proved to be particularly fruitful that Saturday afternoon.
“(Aaron) Jenny, I’d argue with him more than anyone I met, but we were so connected, even today,” Moten said. “Because of his basketball post-up game, I knew I could throw the ball at a high point and let him go get it. My eyes were on him 24-7. He was always my first look.”
Even Peterson, who played quarterback through youth football before going to running back on varsity, was able to find Jenny with the deep ball. With 4:24 left to play, in what looked like another bubble screen, Peterson instead stepped back and lobbed the ball to a wide-open Jenny that put the ball at the 5-yard line.
“Two things ran through my head,” Peterson said. “First, get behind Jayme. Then, make sure I caught the ball. I was incredibly nervous to catch that ball. Jenny had some crazy catches in that game, so I knew if he had any room, he was gonna come up with it.”
On 3rd-and-goal, Moten ran right and threw the ball into double coverage, only for Jenny to come up with the 4-yard touchdown catch. On the conversion, NLS ran the same play in reverse, and Jenny caught another ball in traffic to put the Wildcats ahead 28-21.
Jenny finished the day with five catches for 100 yards.
“I was getting the opportunities and tried to take advantage of each one,” Jenny said. “I was going to do my part to help the team in any way I could. Jayme and I had a great connection. He and I knew that I believed I could catch any ball thrown my way. Most of the time, he made my job pretty easy by dropping dimes all over the field.”
Moten was 7-for-7 in the fourth quarter as part of a 242-yard effort. Completing 14 of 17 passes on the day, Moten still holds the Prep Bowl record for completion percentage (82.4).
Most important, NLS scored on all three of its fourth-quarter drives.
“I didn’t know about the record until a week later,” Moten said. “We were going through the (record) book because someone told me I’d be in there next year because of a record I broke.”
Moten continued, “I don’t remember any of the stats from the games because that’s not the team we were. We were focused on creating the memory of winning; that was always the most important thing.”
Making the stops
The passing game’s heroics wouldn’t have been possible without the defense coming through in the clutch.
“You’re down to the last couple minutes, you’re in the fourth quarter, you’re down by a little. You know what their team can do and you know what you can do as a defense,” Justin Zylstra said. “It was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time, playing what you know and keeping your assignments.”
Up 21-20 with eight minutes to play, G-SL got into NLS territory and was looking at a 4th-and-1. Lueders tried to extend the drive with a run up the middle, only for Justin Zylstra and Nething to gang up for a stop in the backfield and a turnover on downs to set up the game-winning drive.
“That was just a great feeling, being able to come up big and stop their drive,” Nething said. “It was fantastic.”
With 1:08 left, the Panthers were in Wildcat territory again when Anderson looked to pass. But outside linebacker Kevin Soine got enough pressure for Anderson’s pass to flutter in the air into the hands of Schmid.
“That was the only time we blitzed Kevin Soine all year,” Dan Essler said.
G-SL had one final drive that ended when a desperation pass ended up in Nething’s hands.
“I still have that ball to this day in a case,” Nething said.
The Wildcats made good on their goal of becoming state champs, winning the Class AAA championship 28-21.
“I remember the first thing I did was throw off my helmet and looked for my dad,” Jake Essler said. “I grew up in that football office and those assistant coaches; I’d been around them for 15 years before that. I wanted to find those guys right away because I knew how much it meant to them.”
Up in media row, the game’s final moments were a little painful.
“I remember that I hit my head on the low overhang,” Stevens said while laughing. “After the interception, I jumped up and the radio booth at the Dome had such a weird slant to it. Smoked my head on that.”
NLS wasn’t done winning quite yet.
Shortly after the conclusion of the football season, several of the players were on the basketball court to begin a 32-2 year that culminated in a Class AA state championship.
“By the time high school wrapped up, we walked away with a football and basketball state championship, which was exactly what we went into the year to accomplish,” Jenny said.
After high school, several of the standouts competed in college: Jake Essler (St. John’s football); Shawn Hattlestad (Augustana wrestling); Derek Henle (St. Olaf football); Jenny (Wisconsin-Stout men’s basketball/football); Aaron Johnson (Mayville State football); Moten (North Central men’s basketball); Jon Nething (South Dakota State wrestling); Peterson (Concordia-Moorhead football); Soine (Grand View baseball); Tengwall (St. Thomas men’s basketball); and Brandon Zylstra (Concordia-Moorhead football).
Four of the players found a way to make football a career.
Peterson is currently the defensive backs coach/special teams coordinator/recruiting coordinator at Concordia-Moorhead after stops at the University of Mary and Wisconsin-Stout. Jake Essler currently works as a college scout for the Minnesota Vikings.
Brandon Zylstra famously made his way through the Canadian Football League, leading the CFL with 1,687 receiving yards with the Edmonton Eskimos in 2017 before making the jump to the NFL with the Vikings in 2018. He’s currently signed with the Carolina Panthers.
His agent: Jayme Moten of Priority Sports in Chicago.
“Getting the opportunity to represent him was huge,” Moten said. “When I was getting hired to become an NFL agent, I asked if I could be his agent. He said yes, if you work your ass off and prove it to me. That was very good motivation. I’m still growing at this and I give (Brandon) credit for pushing me.”
Since 2009, NLS football has gone to state three more times, reaching the Class AAA championship in back-to-back years in 2013-14. The 2009 squad stands alone as the only state champion.
“They were just great kids, great people,” Dan Essler said. “They’re just top-notch kids. We really didn’t have a problem with practice ever in 2009 and I think that spoke for the senior leadership we had during that season.”