United North Central overcame a two touchdown deficit with a great defensive effort in the second half for a thrilling, come-from-behind 21-20 win over Moose Lake-Willow River in the Class AA State Football Tournament semifinals in Brainerd Saturday.
“These kids just refuse to quit!” exclaimed Warriors’ head coach Jeremy Nordick. “MLWR was an outstanding, physical football team and they were just hammering on us for the whole first half. It is just unreal the resiliency of our guys to fight back and get a win against such a great opponent in the Rebels.”
The day got off to a great start for UNC when quarterback Tom Tellers connected with Thane Dailey for a 35-yard reception on the game’s first play. Tellers followed with a 15-yard run and just like that the Warriors were deep in Rebel territory. Five plays later Kirby Hrdlicka scored from three yards out. The conversion pass failed, but United North Central was up 6-0 just 2:35 into the contest.
The lead didn’t last long as Moose Lake-Willow scored on its third play from scrimmage on a 34- run by Bryceton Butkiewicz, The Rebels were also unable to convert on their two-point run, leaving the score 6-6 with 8:23 left in the first quarter.
The Warriors’ next possession on a interception on a fourth down play, with MLWR taking over on its three yard line. The Rebels put together a methodical 14-play drive that ended on an 18-yard run by Butkiewicz. Another failed conversion run made the score 12-6 with 28 seconds remaining in the period.
A three-and-out by UNC gave the ball back to the Rebels less than a minute into the second quarter. Moose Lake-Willow River went on another long drive, going 69 yards in 14 plays and taking over six minutes off the clock. Butkiewicz scored his third touchdown of the half on a four-yard run. This time the two-point try was good and MLWR led 20-6 with 4:57 left in the first half.
After allowing 20 unanswered points, United North Central responded with an 11-play, 66-yard drive. Tellers scored on a five-yard run and added the conversion to pull the Warriors within 20-14 with just 11 seconds left in the first half.
The Rebels got the ball first in the second half, but the UNC seemed to come out of the halftime break on a mission. MLWR was forced to punt for the first time in the game and the Warriors took over on their 38 yard line.
Nine plays and 62 yards later United North Central had its second straight scoring drive. A one-yard run by Tellers and an extra-point kick by James Clark put the Warriors ahead for the first time since the game’s opening minutes at 21-20 with 4:50 to play in the third quarter.
Moose Lake-Willow River was down, but not out. After Clark’s kickoff sailed into the end zone, the Rebels took over on their 20 yard line. MLWR marched the length of the field and deep into Warriors’ territory, but on the 16th play of the drive, the UNC defense got the stop it needed and the Rebels turned the ball over on downs.
United North Central looked like it would get some breathing room when Tellers and Clark combined on what appeared to be a 63-yard touchdown pass, but a penalty nullified the score and brought the ball back out to the 15 yard line. On the next play from scrimmage, the Warriors fumbled and MLWR recovered at the two yard line.
But the Warriors’ defense forced a three-and-out. After the punt, the Warriors had the ball on the Moose Lake-Willow River 30 yard line 5:14 and were in great position to possibly get the score they needed to clinch the victory.
Another fumble and recovery at the 16 yard line by the Rebels gave the Section 7AA champions one more chance with 3:38 remaining in the game.
MLWR picked up one first down, but a desperation pass was intercepted by Aaron Hrdlicka with 1:35 to play and the Warriors were winners of their first-ever game in a state football tournament.
“This was our first time meeting up with Moose Lake-Willow River, so honestly we didn't quite know what to expect,” Nordick stated. “There are so many things that don't show up on film about the true measure of a team. They have so much tradition, pride and heart. We are honored to have had the chance to play them on such a big stage.”
“These kids and staff…I just love all of them,” Nordick said. “We are all a family and I cannot say enough how proud I am of all of them! These 27 kids and what they've accomplished, against all of the odds, is just remarkable.”
According to unofficial statistics, Tellers finished with 89 yards on 22 rushes and was 7-of-11 for 158 yards passing. Kirby Hrdlicka rushed 14 times for 40 yards. Aaron Hrdlicka caught three passes for 70 yards. Dailey gained 41 yards on two catches and Clark had one reception for 48 yards.
“We are practicing in November! It is just awesome,” commented Nordick. “We cannot wait for our next game Friday night against a very good football team in Pipestone Area. We'll need to have a great week of practice, but knowing these kids they're up for it!”
Nordick also had high praise for the United North Central fan base.
“I'd like to send a big shout out to Warrior Nation! Wow! Our crowd was just electric for us! They've been like that these whole playoffs! To see all those fans in the crowd from both these communities is just overwhelming. It has been so special, and the Warriors are very appreciative! All the parents, friends, family, alumni, fans and wives of coaches ;) I thank all of them. We know that you are on this rollercoaster ride of emotion as well!”
The Warriors (9-2) will face Pipestone Area in the semifinals at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, September 6 in Husky Stadium at St. Cloud State University. The Arrows, ranked second in Class AA at the end of the regular season, improved to 12-0 with a 63-13 win over Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted in their quarterfinal game Friday night.