MINNEOTA - Holding a 20-17 lead with a little more than 5 minutes remaining, No. 2 seed Minneota/Lincoln HI stepped up against No. 3 seed Bird Island-Olivia-Lake Lillian, proving to be a valiant contender in the Class 2A Section 5 Tournament.
Sparked by a 44-yard run by Nathan Pavek, the Vikings set their sights on the end zone with 5:07 remaining. M/LH successfully ran the ball, using up the clock and inching toward the goal line, resulting in a Jeff Gladis touchdown run with 1:16 left. A Diego Meza-Palmer extra-point kick gave the Vikings a 27-17 advantage.
With the game still on the line, the M/LH defense held back an aggressive BOLD offense, beginning with a deflected pass by Austin Buysse. After two more incomplete passes and a false start penalty, the Warriors faced at fourth-and-15.
That's when Jordan Beck's sack, put an exclamation point on the contest and secured a 27-17 victory for the Vikings.
"We needed that," M/LH head coach Chad Johnston said. "They had a couple of big targets to throw to. The funny thing is that we were rushing three (defenders) and they were protecting with five (offensive linemen). You think that their quarterback is going to have a lot of time to throw the ball and you're worried about that a little bit. But we've got those guys in there who are quick."
Despite the uneven matchup, Johnston said that players like Beck and Daniel Harrison have been successful.
"They're still able to get there," Johnston said. "Jordan Beck came off the edge and that (sack) was big. That was a credit to those kids and that's been a key to our success. Those kids who step up and make those plays."
While surging to the top of the Class A competition the past few years, the Vikings were untested at the next level, leaving some question marks as to how the first year of Class 2A playoffs would go.
But at the end of the game Saturday night in Minneota, the Vikings left no doubt about their intentions and their abilities.
"With the bump up to AA, it was a little frustrating," Johnston said. "We felt that we had a good enough team to make it back to the state tournament and turn some heads in Class A. But as the season went on, we gained more confidence that maybe we could do that in AA, too. We knew the road would be a little tougher, but it's been a goal for this group from Day 1. I think they knew they had the potential to do some good things."
M/LH will play No. 1 seed Paynesville Area in the section title game at 7 p.m. Friday at the University of Minnesota-Morris.
The Vikings didn't waste any time to score in their semifinal game, marching downfield and putting up six points on an Alec Engler touchdown run from 12 yards out at the 10:09 mark. The effort was a mental breakthrough as much as it was physical.
"That was huge," Johnston said. "We really thought that if we could put that opening drive together, that would be good for us. After a penalty right off the bat, we turned around and put it together."
Six minutes later, BOLD was able to take a 7-6 lead when Ben Steffel ran for a 5-yard touchdown. The Warriors capitalized on a field goal with 8:03 remaining in the second quarter and held a 10-6 edge before M/LH struck again.
"I wasn't real certain whether the game would be in the 40s or low scoring based on defenses," Johnston said. "I was a little concerned after that first drive of our on defense. BOLD did a nice job of marching down the field on us and playing very physical. It's a credit to the kids, that they came back and responded well.
"They ended up giving up a field goal, but after giving up about a 70-yard run, but our kids stopped them and held them to a field goal,?"Johnston said. "That's kind of a victory in my book. I was very happy. We were also able to punch one in and take a lead heading into halftime. So, that was key."
After Engler put his team in a good position on the return, Pavek completed the drive by scoring from three yards out to give the Vikings a 13-10 lead at the half.
"We ran the ball well (Saturday), I thought," Pavek said. "Then, we had the pass when we needed it, too. They're a strong, hard-hitting team. We took it a little bit, but we finally got up to the challenge and took them on."
Pavek finished the game with 117 yards rushing on eight carries and had one catch for 11 yards.
"We weren't used to it being so close at halftime, so it was a little nerve-wracking," Pavek said. "It was fun to have that. But we did well. I was proud of all my teammates, to run the ball and pass the pass. It was a good win to take."
Just before the half, BOLD had a 31-yard kickoff return, and had it not been for Viking linebacker Cole Hennen, the Warriors would likely have found themselves ahead at the break. M/LH continued to keep the defensive pressure on in the third quarter.
"They had some big guys and I think we were a little outsized, and we knew they were going to run the ball, but we figured it out and our guys stepped up and made big plays," Viking quarterback Austin Buysse said. "It was a total team effort."
Johnston agreed, noting that he had a lot of respect for the BOLD program.
"There's a lot of pride and a lot of tradition for BOLD," he said. "I knew they were going to come in and play a physical game and I wasn't sure how the kids were going to respond to that. But the kids responded phenomenally to that after that opening drive. I'm extremely happy with our kids' performance."
The Vikings tested the passing game early on, but ended up finding more success with the running game, compiling 282 yards rushing compared to the Warriors' 169.
"In the second half, we tried to pound the ball and waste some clock time," Buysse said. "And we opened the holes and got four or five yards at a pop. That's going to be a first down every time. They line did a great job. We like to mix up our play action, and we have a lot of weapons. We were able to keep our run game going, so there was no need to pass."
Buysse went 7 of 13 passing for 72 yards. BOLD had 84 yards in the air.
Gladis, who led the Vikings with 119 yards rushing on 23 carries, put the Vikings up 20-10 early in the fourth quarter when he found the end zone from nine yards out. The Warriors closed the gap again with a Lane Stadther touchdown with 5:19 left in the game.
"We took time off the clock, kept them off the field and were able to put points on the board," Johnston aid. "That's what you need to do, especially at this time of the year and against teams like this. You have to be able to take time off the clock. So, that's a credit to the kids. They stepped up and did well."
Saturday marked the last time the six Viking seniors will play at home, making the win a bittersweet one. With one more opponent - No. 1 seed Paynesville Area - in the way of a state tournament berth, M/LH has no intentions of ending its season yet.
"We have a goal to get to state," Pavek said. "We expect to get there. It would be an honor to be there, especially going from A to AA."
Johnston sad Paynesville Area has a different strategy.
"Unlike BOLD, which keeps it compact and tries to run it down your throat, Paynesville Area is a team that will try to spread out the defense and run on you, including pistol options," Johnston said.
Like the objective every week, M/LH will try to take away its opponent's biggest strength.
"What a great feeling it would be to be able to make that trip in your first year in AA," Johnston said. "It's a tough road, there's no doubt about it. But, hopefully, we're the ones making big plays on Friday."
MINNEOTA/LINCOLN HI 27, BOLD 17
Minneota/LH 6 7 0 14 - 27
BOLD 7 3 0 7 - 17
M-Alec Engler 12 run (Simon Ankersen kick failed), 10:09.
B-Ben Steffel 5 run (Nick Kubesh kick good), 4:15.
B-Kubesh field goal, 8:03.
M-Nathan Pavek 3 run (Ankersen kick good), 3:36.
M-Jeff Gladis 9 run (Diego Meza-Palmer kick good), 10:58.
B-Lane Stadther 1 run (Kubesh kick good), 5:19.
M-Gladis 3 run (Meza-Palmer kick good), 1:16.
RUSHING - Minneota/LH (Gladis 23-119, Pavek 8-117, Engler 5-21); BOLD (Steffel 15-76, Brad Wolff 12-75, Stadther 9-18).
PASSING - Minneota/LH (Austin Buysse 7-13-72-0-0); BOLD (Stadther 6-19-84-1).
RECEIVING - Minneota/Lincoln HI (Engler 2-29, Gladis 2-15, Jordan Beck 1-13, Pavek 1-11, Nicholas Esping 1-4); BOLD (Trevor Nissen 4-70, Wolff 1-7, Max Buchtel 1-7).
TACKLES - Minneota/LH (Garrett Hennen 6.5, Matt Knutson 5, Pavek 4.5, Engler 4.5, Cole Hennen 4, Jordan Twedt 4, Andrew Behnke 3.5, Daniel Harrison 3.5); BOLD (Sawyer Tersteeg 13.5, Nissen 6, Wolff 4).
SACKS - Minneota/LH (Beck 1); BOLD (Tersteeg 1).