by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
In a duel of two relentless offenses, it was a punter who turned the tide Friday night as the Maple Grove Crimson held off the Elk River Elks 28-25.
The Elks, down 21-18 early in the fourth quarter at home, thwarted a Crimson drive at midfield, with Nick Knopick sacking their quarterback for a 12-yard loss. It was 4th-and-17 when the Elks got ready to return a punt from Tyler Field and try regain the lead.
Instead, Field, also a wide receiver and safety, saw some daylight on the left side and took off running, down the sideline, all the way to the end zone. The refs ruled him out-of-bounds at the 23 but his 30-yard gainer for a first down led to an 11-yard touchdown by Jack Walick that opened a 28-18 lead with 9:40 left.
“That fake punt was kind of a back-breaker,” assessed Elk coach Steve Hamilton, “because you could sense we were wearing them down in the second half, and our kids were feeling pretty confident.”
The Elks closed the gap with an eight-yard scoring run by Denis Bardashevskiy with 2:35 left, after a 55-yard gainer on a pass from Jordan Johnson to Derek Cross, but the Crimson were able to run out the clock.
The Elks (1-2) ran for 302 yards while the Crimson (2-1) were the rare opponent to outrush them with 312, the edge coming on their punter’s brazen gamble.
“That was on the kid,” said Crimson coach Matt Lombardi, meaning he didn’t call the play. “It’s a rugby punt and he has the option, and on that play he took a chance. Seventeen yards (to go), that’s taking big chance! But with the position we are in at Maple Grove, we’ve got to take some chances, so I was proud that he did it.”
It was an entertaining game punctuated by plenty of big plays by both sides, with Walick also dashing 80 yards for a TD and totaling 187 in 17 carries, while Bardashevskiy carried for 134 yards, Austin Larson 79 and Maclean Berglove 69 for the Elks.
Lombardi saluted the Elks, who are re-entering the Northwest Suburban Conference this year after a good season (6-3) against smaller schools last year, on the heels of six very lean years, five in the NWSC and one in the Mississippi 8.
“Their coach does a wonderful job with the kids in Elk River and they are kind of a hidden program right now,” said Lombardi. “He is making this team into something special. This is a great win for us because that is a good team.”
Said Hamilton: “In the second half our kids did a great job getting off the ball and we ran hard, and our defense was trying to keep us in it, but give Maple Grove some credit, too. They have some kids who can go, and they made big plays.”
The Elks are now done with the non-conference portion of the NWSC schedule in which the 5A schools take on 6A schools. From now on, it’s all conference games against the same class.The Elks lost to Blaine 28-14 after leading 14-8 and beat Centennial 37-13.
“Now all this crossover stuff is over,” said Hamilton, “and I think we did a better job than people thought we would do. We had a chance to be 3-0, because we were in every game. Now it’s conference, and now it counts, and the kids know that, so we are just working to get better. I think we are going to be OK.”
The Elks had a great start with Larson busting 25 yards for a TD after gaining 33 yards three plays earlier. But the Crimson led 14-7 before the quarter was over on Blake Skaja’s 30-yard throw to Jake Wieneke in the end zone, and Walick’s 80-yard burst off left tackle down the sidelines.
The Crimson forced three Elk punts before the hosts got moving again after Nick LaBatt recovered a Crimson fumble at midfield late in the half. Larson kicked 21-yard field goal and it was 14-10 at the half.
However, the Elks had a personal foul on a Crimson passing play as time ran out that was assessed on the second-half kickoff. Then a five-yard illegal procedure on the first kickoff attempt pushed Larson back to the 20 for that kickoff. Maple Grove’s Brian Yasosky made a slick, swiveling return to the Elks 35, and Brycen Wojta dashed for a seven-yard touchdown moments later.
The Elks, down by 11, pulled together and marched 80 yards, capped by Berglove’s one-yard plunge into the end zone. Johnson’s two-point pass to Berglove made it 21-18, setting up an exciting fourth quarter.
The conference games start next Friday with the Elks at Andover.
Bardashevskiy running strong
Bardashevskiy, a 5-foot-11, 160-pound junior, has three straight games in the 130’s for rushing yards. He’s almost halfway to 1,000 already.
“I just hit the hole hard, I’m just waiting for that hole, and running with my eyes,” Bardashevskiy, said. ” I’ve got good blockers in the backfield and the linemen.”
Hamilton noted: “He is going to be a special player. He’s just a puppy right now.”
The ballcarrier assessed that the team has done pretty well so far and is looking forward to the conference games.
“We have to execute, and do the little things the coaches tell us to do.”
Elks half of the conference
Totino-Grace, newcomer to the NWSC, and Osseo each went 3-0 against the bigger schools, and rank as co-favorites in the Elks’ half of the NWSC.
Totino-Grace, ranked No. 5, beat Edina, Coon Rapids and Anoka. Osseo, ranked No. 6, had the same schedule as the Elks, beating Centennial, Maple Grove and Blaine.
Andover and Park Center are 1-2 and Armstrong 0-3. Park Center’s win was against St. Francis (not a NWSC team). Edina, also not a NWSC team, beat Andover while losing to T-G.
Maple Grove 28, Elk River 25
Maple Grove … 14 0 7 7 — 28
Elk River ……… 7 3 8 7 — 25
ER—Austin Larson 25 run (Larson kick)
MG—Jake Wieneke 30 pass from Blake Skaja (Brycen Wojta kick)
MG—Jack Walick 80 run (Wojta kick)
ER—Larson 21 field goal
MG—Wojta 7 run (Wojta kick)
ER—Maclean Berglove 2 run (Berglove pass from Jordan Johnson)
MG—Walick 11 run (Wojta kick)
ER—Denis Bardashevskiy 8 run (Larson kick)
Rushes-yards — Maple Grove 38-314, Elks 49-302
Passing (att-cmp-yrd-int) — Maple Grove 2-10-31-0, Elks 5-8-65-0
Penalties-yards —Maple Grove 4-47, Elk 5-40
Maple Grove statistics
Rushing — Walick 17-187, Brian Yasoky 11-47, Wojta 4-46, Tyler Field 1-30, Skaja 4-0, Tyler Coyne 1-4
Passing — Skaja 2-10-31-0
Receiving — Wieneke 1-30, Yasosky 1-1
Elk River statistics
Rushing — Bardashevskiy 20-134, Larson 13-79, Berglove 9-69, Devin Donalson 3-16, Johnson 4-4
Passing — Johnson 5-8-65-0
Receiving — Jordan Meyer 1-2, Derek Cros 1-55, Donelson 1-6
QB sack — Jake Knopick
Fumble recovery — Nick LaBatt