by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
The Zimmerman Thunder captured their first conference football championship Friday night, toppling St. Cloud Cathedral 24-14 at home, boosted by two long touchdown passes from Ethan Lunning to his brother Caleb.
The Thunder clinched at least a share of the Granite Ridge Conference crown and can nail it down outright if they beat Princeton, an 0-7 team, next Wednesday.
“It is great to capture a share of the conference championship,” said coach Tom Kish. “This win is for all the players who have worn the Thunder jersey and helped build this program.”
The Thunder are 6-1 overall and 5-0 in conference. Cathedral, also 6-1 overall, absorbed its first loss and finished conference at 5-1. They have a non-conference game with Rocori remaining.
“Our guys rose to the occasion and our big-time players had big-time games,” said Kish. “Our D-Line was incredible, our backers played downhill all night, and our secondary made a few big plays in the second half.”
Junior nose tackle Jake Antolak led the defensive effort, making 12 tackles, five of them for losses. Junior linebacker Mitch Robinson caused havoc, too, with eight tackles, three for losses.
“Jake and Mitch were absolutely dominant,” said Kish. “Jake showed he’s definitely a candidate for defensive player of the year in our conference.”
Ethan Lunning hit Caleb for a 35-yard touchdown in the first quarter and an 85-yarder with five minutes left in the game for the back-breaker. Caleb got behind the defense to catch both TD passes.
The 85-yarder came shortly after the Thunder, up by just 17-14, stopped the Crusaders on downs at the 15 with five minutes remaining. The Thunder coaches saw that Cathedral was packing the box with safeties just seven yards behind the line. Rather than try grind for yards and run the clock down, they elected to go over the top.
Lunning, a wingback, ran a nice seam route, got 10 yards past the secondary, hauled in a pass that hit him right in stride at the 40, and sped the final 60 yards untouched.
Ethan hit five of 12 for 140 yards. The Thunder rushed for 182 yards, with Bye totaling 53, Ethan Lunning 52 and Caleb Lunning 49.
“Ethan and Caleb played their best offensive games of the year,” said Kish. “Our offensive line dominated the trenches.”
The line had two starters out, but got the job done with reserves Dustin Neseth and Cory Jopp playing full time and Jeremy Sloneker, a full-time defensive player, also staying on the field for offense.
The Thunder also got a 32-yard field goal from Alex McGregor and a seven-yard TD run by Bye, who also made a clinching interception late in the game.
Cathedral’s scoring plays were a 43-yard run by Bo Schmitz — one play after Zimmerman was unsuccessful on an onside kick — and a five-yard TD pass from Mathew Dodge to Neil Vierzba, both in the second quarter. The TD pass came with two seconds on the clock.
The Thunder knew they’d have trouble with Cathedral’s elusive Dodge, and he did scramble for a couple of first downs. But they were able to keep him from taking charge of the game, and he also missed about 10 plays in the second half after he took a few good shots from the Thunder.
Zimmerman has played in one previous conference championship game, in 2006, and lost that one to Foley in the Rum River Conference.
Kish said the Thunder must now refocus for the conference finale against Princeton, where a win would clinch an outright title, along with a No. 1 seed in the section, meaning home-field throughout.
Zimmerman 24, St. Cloud Cathedral 14
SC Cathedral ………… 0 14 0 0 – 14
Zimmerman …………… 7 10 0 7 – 21
Zim – Caleb Lunning 35 pass from Ethan Lunning (Alex MacGregor kick)
Zim – MacGregor 32 field goal
SCC – Bo Schmitz 43 run (kick failed)
Zim – Evan Bye 7 run (MacGregor kick)
SCC – Neil Vierzba 5 pass from Mathew Dodge (Waylan Bemboom pass from Dodge)
Zim – C. Lunning 85 pass from E. Lunning (McGregor kick)
Rushing – Bye 5-53, E. Lunning 8-52, C. Lunning 9-49, Cam Korlath 7-35, Brandon Smith 1-2, Jake Wilson 1-1
Passing – E. Lunning 5-12-140-0, Wilson 1-1-8-0
Receiving – C. Lunning 2-118, Bye 2-9, Luke Schmit 2-43, Korlath 1-11
Tackles – Jake Antolak 12, C. Lunning 9, Jeff Mueller 8, Mitch Robinson 8, E. Lunning 7, Noah Lunning 6, Bye 6, Tyler Theisen 4, Jeremy Sloneker 4
QB sacks – Theisen 1, Robinson 1, Sloneker 1, Mueller 1
Tackles for loss – Antolak 5, Robinson 3, E. Lunning 2
Interception – Bye 1
GRANITE RIDGE CONFERENCE
Zimmerman ………….. 5-0 6-1
SC Cathedral ……….. 5-1 6-1
Foley …………………… 3-2 5-2
Mora …………………….. 2-3 3-4
Little Falls …………….. 2-3 2-5
Milaca …………………… 1-4 1-5
Princeton ………………. 0-5 0-7
Zimmerman 24, St. Cloud Cathedral 14
Foley 49, Princeton 14
Little Falls 36, Mora 24
Big Lake 36, Milaca 0
Zimmerman at Princeton
Foley at Mora
Little Falls at Milaca
SC Cathedral at Rocori