by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
It’s hard to imagine a team more gritty in victory than the Rogers Royals or more valiant in defeat than the St. Michael-Albertville Knights, after the neighboring football powers mesmerized a huge crowd on both sides of the stadium with a rollicking, riveting conference championship game Wednesday night.
The Royals prevailed in the duel of unbeatens 38-37 in overtime at Rogers after rallying from three separate 10-point deficits, forcing overtime with a 40-yard field goal by Isaac Aanerud as time ran out and stopping the Knights’ gutsy attempt at a two-pointer to win when Gunnar Bloom broke up a pass in the end zone.
“It was a lot of fun, and that’s what it’s all about, even though of course you want to win,” said Knight coach Jared Essler. “It’s supposed to be fun. You don’t ‘work football.’ You ‘play football.’ And we all had a great time playing football tonight.”
The outcome gives Rogers the Mississippi 8 championship and the Section 6-5A top seed with an 8-0 record and leaves STMA with a 7-1 mark and a huge desire to meet the Royals again, which could happen. Both will have a first-round bye Tuesday as the other six section teams square off.
“I was so proud of how the kids came back,” gushed Rogers coach Marc Franz. “Just for them to come back, and get the bitter end. After we used our thee time-outs, the kids just made the plays when they had to.”
The Royals had their best air game of the year, 303 yards, with Reid Sagehorn hooking six passes for 141 yards. Connor Henderson completed 15 of 27 for 266 yards and Andy Borchardt 3-of-3 for 37 more.
Knight junior quarterback Jackson Greenwaldt also sparkled, starting with a 51-yard touchdown rollout on a fourth-and-one play to open the scoring. He would complete nine of 19 passes for 149 yards with Dallas Freeman snagging five for 99 yards.
Each starting QB also got picked off twice, but that was just the nature of this game, where no lead was safe and game-turning big plays kept happening on both sides.
“It was rough playing from behind like that all night,” said Rogers inside linebacker Nate Weber, who made one of the interceptions and scored twice, on a run and a pass, “but we had to keep fighting back and keep digging.”
The most pivotal interception was made by Knight defensive back Andrew Winans, who stepped in front of a Royal receiver in the flat to pick off Henderson with clear sailing for a 54-yard touchdown that put his team up 31-21 with just 6:54 left in the game.
Rogers bounced right back with a drive starting with Sagehorn’s winding 37-yard gainer on a sideline pass and ending with Henderson’s thread-the-needle pass to Weber for an eight-yard touchdown with 3:12 remaining.
Down 31-28, the Royals needed to force a punt, but STMA pushed forward for three first downs, all on the ground, while the Royal sused up all three time outs.
“It was a little nerve-wracking, but we knew our defense would get the ball for us,” said Henderson.
Finally they made a stop and Bloom returned a short punt 10 yards. Rogers was in business at their 33 but with just one minute remaining.
“We practice that every week, so we were ready,” said Henderson, meaning a one-minute drill, never mind that he’d never had to execute one in a game before. “Just get out of bounds, stop the clock, and give our kicker a chance.”
That kicker, Aanerud, who’s had a stellar three-year varsity career, was almost the goat in this game, having missed from 47 and 33 yards on a night it looked like his team might lose by three. Number 31 watched anxiously to see if he’d be needed again.
He was indeed. The Royals moved swiftly downfield with Henderson hitting Weber for 21, Bloom bolting 15 yards and Sagehorn snagging an 11-yarder and stumbling out of bounds. After three incomplete passes, Aanerud and his holder Nate Hajder got the call with 4.7 seconds left.
“Everyone was telling me at halftime — Franz, Gunnar, everyone — to shake it off, we’ve got a big second half coming up,” said Aanerud. He added that when STMA called a time-out to freeze him, Franz summoned the kicking team and “all he told us was to enjoy the moment. And that’s what we tried to do.”
The Royals and their side of the field certainly enjoyed watching Aanerud’s kick soar through the uprights to tie the game 31-31 with zeroes on the clock.
“The kids on the sideline all just exploded when that kick went through. That will be a lifelong memory for him,” said Franz.
The coach had no hesitation about going back to Aanerud.
“He is a three-year kicker for us and he has made numerous field goals. He made one last year to beat Monticello 10-7 so he has been in that situation before.”
After the action-packed 48 minus of regulation that also included STMA leads of 10-0, 24-14 and 31-21, Landon Bridell’s 32-yard field goal and TD runs by Chris Kartes and Noah Evans for the Knights, and Henderson’s one-yard sneak and 20-yard TD pass to Sagehorn, along with Weber’s 10-yard scoring run, for Rogers, the overtime went quickly but no less dramatically.
Jake Owens bucked six yards on second down to score for Rogers and Aanerud made it 37-31. The Knights retaliated with Evans slashing nine yards to set up Kartes’ one-yard score on second down.
The Knights wanted no part of a second overtime, though. Essler sent Greenwaldt and the offensive unit back on the field. Franz called a timeout to make sure the kids were line up.
“We had a play we were pretty comfortable with,” said Essler, “and the way the game was playing out between their offense and our defense, I wasn’t very confident that we could get a stop in the second overtime, so we went for it. Plus, being on the road was a factor.”
Said Franz: “I probably would have done the exact same thing, with a chance to win in one play, from three yards out, especially on the road.”
With a few thousand fans on their feet screaming, Greenwaldt handed off, backpedaled, and had the ball flipped back to him. Trick play! But when he fired for tight end Josh Tracy near the flag in the corner of the end zone, Bloom swooped in to knock the ball down. It was over.
The Royals went a little crazy celebrating their hard-won championship, and their coaches looked a little like teenagers themselves as they joined in the revelry.
“It was a phenomenal football game,” said Franz, “and I am just happy to have been a part of it.”
Rogers 38, STMA 37, OT
STMA ……………. 10 0 14 7 6 — 37
Rogers …………… 7 7 7 10 7 — 38
STMA—Jackson Greenwaldt 49 run (Landon Bridell kick)
STMA—Bridell 32 field goal
Rog—Connor Henderson 1 run (Isaac Aanerud kick)
Rog—Nate Weber 10 run (Aanerud kick)
STMA—Chris Kartes 1 run (Bridell kick)
STMA—Noah Evans 12 run (Bridell kick)
Rog—Reid Sagehorn 20 pass from Henderson (Aanerud kick)
STMA—Andrew Winans 54 interception return (Bridell kick)
Rog—Weber 6 pass from Henderson (Aanerud kick)
Rog—Aanerud 40 field goal
Rog—Jake Owens 6 run (Aanerud kick)
STMA—Kartes 1 run (pass failed)
Rushing — STMA 47-186, Rogers 34-167
Passing — STMA 9-19-149-2, Rogers 18-30-303-2
Turnovers — STMA 2 (2 int), Rogers 2 (2 int)
Penalties — STMA 7-55, Roger 6-70
Rushing — Kartes 25-69, Greenwaldt 7-64, Evans 3-48, Matt Kisch 2-5
Passing — Greenwaldt 9-19-149-2
Receiving — Dallas Freeman 5-99, Kisch 1-23, Josh Tracy 1-21, Austin Wick 1-6, Kartes 1-0
Interceptions — Freeman, Winans
Rushing — Gunnar Bloom 14-77, Owens 6-31, Weber 6-21, Travis Dietl 3-18, Henderson 3-13, Cole Flander 1-8, Sagehorn 1-(-1)
Passing — Henderson 15-27-266-2, Andy Borchardt 3-3-37-0
Receiving — Sagehorn 6-141, Weber 4-42, Bloom 3-66, Joey Donley 3-21, Cole Murray 1-20, Nate Hajder 1-13
Interceptions — Borchardt, Weber