by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
There are many ways to win football games. When the Elk River Elks found their tried-and-true method wasn’t working Friday night, they took on a completely different personality and beat St. Michael-Albertville 24-10, capturing their school’s first section crown since 1992.
“Like we told the kids last week, sometimes the offense is going to carry you, and sometimes the defense has to do it,” said Elks coach Steve Hamilton. “That’s high school football. Our whole defense, they all did a great job, special teams too.”
After rushing for 1,001 yards in two previous section wins, the Elks got loose only twice all night against a smart, brawny Knight defense as Denis Bardashevskiy raced 90 yards and Austin Larson 15 for touchdowns.
Otherwise it was all defense and special teams, most notably Alec Plaisted with an onside kick recovery, a fumble recovery and a game-clinching interception; linebacker Bryan Edwards with 10 tackles and a sack; and Nate Storby with a 37-yard field goal subbing for sore-ankled Austin Larson, who still kicked off.
“Last week, we needed three quarterbacks,” said Hamilton, referring to the 53-42 win at Rogers when the first two QB’s had ankle sprains, “and this week, we needed two kickers. That’s what a team is about.”
He meant place-kickers, but a third kicker, punter Clay Elrod, came up big, too.
The No. 5 seeded Elks, pushing above .500 for the first time at 6-5 with four straight wins, grabbed the Class 5A, Section 6 crown and advanced to the state tournament. They face St. Thomas Academy, 9-1 and ranked No. 4, on Friday at Osseo.
The STMA Knights, who were allowing just 12 points per game, and had handed conference champ Rogers its lone regular-season loss and avenged their other two losses (against Buffalo and Monticello) with playoff paybacks, finished 7-4.
With a defensive front featuring three guys in the 250 to 270 range, the Knights gave up just 214 rushing yards to an Elk team averaging about twice that, with 105 of those coming on two plays, and just one pass completion for 10 yards, that coming on a fake punt.
“Their line up front was just whipping our tails,” said Bardashevskiy, “and we were just not getting the job done.”
Added Hamilton: “They are big up front and very physical and they really make you slug it out. We knew it would be that kind of game. And we came out on top. I am so proud of these guys.”
Knights coach Jared Essler returned the compliment about the Elks defense, which was not what he anticipated.
“I didn’t think they were all that tough on defense,” said Essler. “Rogers got 42 points on them, and we thought we would be able to match up pretty well over there. But, gee, they were physical. They had some nice defensive linemen and a couple good linebackers. I was really impressed with their defense.”
Said Plaisted, a defensive back: “Since Rogers we’ve been switching up a lot. We had a lot of different fronts and we just went after it.”
Defensive coordinator Chad Baldwin, who missed Thursday’s practice because his wife was about to give birth to their third child, was confident his team was well-prepared.
“We call our defense the wolf pack, because we want them to be like a pack of wolves getting to the ball. The kids really understand the scheme and have bought into it. They believe wholeheartedly that they are good enough to play with anybody.”
Plaisted and Nick Johnson made six tackles each as the Elks limited STMA to 111 yards rushing and 28 passing. Plaisted, Jordan Meyer and Storby recovered fumbles. Edwards had a sack among his 10 tackles and Wade Schuster also had a sack.
Chris Kartes gained 89 yards in 16 carries for STMA. Quarterback Cole Kurtzig, the player who concerned the Elks the most, was limited to 6-for-20 passing.
The ERHS trophy case will get its first new addition from the football program since the 1992 team won the section after placing second in conference. This is the Elks fifth section title overall with a 20-year wait from the fourth.
“If you look back at where we were as a program two years ago,” said Hamilton, who’s now 12-8 in two years after taking over a sagging program, “it is pretty amazing what these kids have done. Last year’s seniors were a big part of turning that around.”
STMA got on the board first with a 23-yard field goal by Justin McClain with 4:04 left in the first quarter after Jacob Moran intercepted a Larson pass at midfield.
The Elks erased the Knights lead quicker than you can say “Denis Bardashevskiy” as the junior tailback bolted 90 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown, two plays after they were stuck at the 10 by an illegal block on the kickoff.
“I think I cut around a couple guys and then just hauled to the end zone,” said Bardashevskiy, who only tied his career-longest run as he also broke a 90-yarder among five TD’s against Rogers.
Essler said the Elks made the Knights pay for a blitz on that play.
“We did not want to stay in our base offense all the time,” he reflected. “We brought a linebacker to the backside, and he could not bend over the top and make a play. So we were one guy short on the front side, where the pulling guard inserted. That’s coaching. You’ve got to take some chances sometimes, and there’s always a risk.”
That would be the one and only time the Knights lost track of their main prey, who netted 52 yards on his other 19 carries, lifting his season total to 1,835 yards.
“After that, we played a lot of base defense, we stopped blitzing, and our linebackers were snuffing it out pretty good, and we were making the tackles in the open field,” said Essler. “Our defense played great, but we put them in some tough situations with the short field.”
Larson, with his gimpy right ankle that’s sidelined him three games this year, missed the extra point. However, moments later he chopped a perfect onside kick and Plaisted snagged the ball just before it went out of bounds at the Knight 40.
“We’ve been trying to do that all year,” beamed Plaisted. “Last year we got a few of them. I just knew I had it. The ball took a bounce and came right at me and I was just waiting for it.”
Special teams came through twice more on that series. A fake punt on 4th-and-3 worked, with Larson hitting Edwards, the team’s star linebacker, for a 10-yard gain. And Storby booted a 37-yard field goal, early in the second quarter, for a 9-3 lead. Storby, normally limited to XP’s and short field goals, made by far his longest kick, albeit by a just couple inches over the bar.
The Elks nursed that 9-3 lead for a quarter and a half as the two teams took turns shutting each other down.
Then Elk special teams loosened things up again as Hadden fielded a punt on a perfect waist-high bounce just before the coverage got there, darted right, swerved past a couple tacklers at the sideline, and wound up with a 35-yard advance to the 20.
Two plays later, Larson loped around right end for a 15-yard touchdown, the only time the Elks were able to make their staple quarterback play work against the Knights. Storby’s kick made it 17-3 with 6:48 to go in the third.
“On that one, we got our edge block,” said Larson. “Otherwise, their outside linebacker was a very good player and we had a hard time getting our hands on him. That time, we just all did our job, and it was pretty easy for me to just trot around the end and get in the end zone.”
If the Elks suddenly felt safe with a 14-point bulge, they weren’t. The Knights put together their lone drive of the night with four runs of 10 yards or more, capped by fullback Ben Wilson’s one-yard plunge, cutting the lead to 17-10 with 3:06 left in the third.
The Elk defense went back to shut-down mode while their offense remained stymied, making just one first down in the fourth quarter. Even after Plaisted recovered a punt returner’s fumble at the Knight 37, the Elks, desperate for at least a field goal to clinch it, came up empty as Bardashevskiy was stopped inches short on a 4th-and-11 run.
The Knights took over at their 27 but Kurtzig misfired on three straight passes under pressure. The Knights punted, then stopped three Elks runs. The Elks had 4th-and-2 at the Knights 36 and were about to go for it when Hamilton called time-out and sent in Elrod with the punting unit.
“We decided that our defense has been playing so well, let’s leave it up to them,” said Hamilton.
Good call, and the defense’s job was made considerably easier when Elrod finessed the punt of his life, a dainty little pop fly that rolled dead at the one-yard line, with Riley Filopovich there to down it.
The Knights, with 2:54 left and needing 99 yards, lasted only one more play. Kurtzig tried a short pass from the end zone and Plaisted leapt to pick it off at the six.
“I was supposed to go for the blitz,” said Plaisted, “but I saw him drop back, and I took my drop, and jumped, and the ball was right there. It was awesome.”
On the sideline, quarterback Larson heaved a sigh of relief.
“That made my day. You have no idea,” he said.
Larson handed off to Nick Johnson on the next play and the 175-pound senior busted into the end zone for a 24-10 lead.
Elk River 24, STMA 10
Elk River ……… 6 3 8 7 — 24
STMA ………….. 3 0 7 0 — 19
STMA — Justin McLain 23 field goal
ER—Bardashevskiy 90 run (kick failed)
ER—Nate Storby 37 field goal
ER—Austin Larson 15 run (Maclean Berglove pass from Larson)
STMA—Ben Wilson 1 run (McLain kick)
ER—Nick Johnson 6 run (Storby kick)
Rushing —Elks 43-214, STMA 34-111
Passing — Elks 1-4-10-1, STMA 5-20-28-1
Turnovers — Elks 2 (2 interceptions), STMA 3 (3 fumbles)
Penalties — Elks 3-25, STMA 3-30
Rushing — Chris Kartes 16-89, Wilson 6-18
Passing — Cole Krutzig 5-20-28-1
Interceptions —Jacob Moran, Noah Evans
Elk River statistics
Rushing — Bardashevskiy 20-142, Larson 14-45, N.Johnson 4-10, Storby 3-10, Berglove 1-6, Donelson 1-1
Passing —Larson 1-4-10-1, Jordan Johnson 0-1-0-1
Receiving —Bryan Edwards 1-10
Tackles — Edwards 10, Alex Plaisted 6, Nick Johnson 6, Colton Budreau 3, Jordan Meyer 3, Riley Filipovich 3, Jake Knopick 3, Storby 2, Connor Hanson 2, Wyatt Schuster 1, Terry Hadden 1, Jorge Ramirez 1
Sacks — Schuster, Edwards
Fumble recoveries — Storby, Meyer, Plaisted
Interception — Plaisted
Onside kick recovery — Plaisted