MINNEAPOLIS – Watertown-Mayer football coach Andrew Phillips knew his team would be in for a battle. He was right.
When the Royals faced off against fellow East Central South district opponent New London-Spicer in the Class AAA semifinals, it was the big plays at key moments that helped the Wildcats come out on top with a 33-28 win over the W-M at US Bank Stadium Nov. 18.
“I told our guys all week long as we prepared that the one thing we had to do was limit the big plays,” W-M coach Andrew Phillips said. “We knew going into it looking at it on paper, we’re two evenly matched teams. I’m sure when I go back and look at this one it’s the little plays that matter just as much as the big ones. It was a tough game for us. Our kids battled hard to the very end. That’s all we can ask of them.”
Things couldn’t have gotten off to a better start for the Royals. After forcing a punt on the opening drive by the Wildcats, W-M went 72 yards on 14 plays capped off by a 1-yard touchdown run by Albert Rundell. On the drive, the Royals converted two fourth downs including the score on 4th and goal.
Rundell using his legs would be a big part of the offense going forward for W-M for the rest of the game. With senior running back Wyatt McCabe shaken up on the first drive, Rundell was leaned on even more for W-M through the air and on the ground.
“They’re so just dynamic,” NL-S coach Chad Gustafson said. “Albert can not only pass the ball but he’s a great runner. It’s championship football now when you’re down to the final few teams.”
The Wildcats would answer the opening score of the game by the Royals. Not only did they hold W-M scoreless the rest of the half, but they also scored 19 unanswered points to take a rare lead into the locker room at the half.
“We really emphasized getting off to a faster start,” Gustafson said. “To have the lead at halftime was huge tonight.”
Like they have all season long, W-M battled back. The Royals went 71 yards on their opening drive of the second half as McCabe, who was playing hurt, scored on a two-yard run to get his team back within one score.
“Guys were banged up,” Phillips said. “ In AAA football, you have a lot of guys that play both ways. We’ve got guys out there who came off the field for less than 20 snaps. Their toughness showed. They’re going to be wounded warriors walking into school Monday but all of them better be really proud of what they’ve done.”
After the Royals closed the gap, NL-S came through time and time again with big plays in the second half to hold them at bay. Early in the fourth quarter, Brycen Christiensen hauled in a 17-yard touchdown catch from Blake Schultz on 3rd and 13 to put the Wildcats up 27-14.
Down two scores once again, W-M battled back. On a play in which Rundell refused to go down, he scored on a 25-yard run to bring his team back within one score again.
“He’s our catalyst,” Phillips said. “The guy who can step in when needed. They did a great job of stopping our run game early and Albert said give me the ball. That’s what you love to see. There were a couple of plays there at the end that I thought were broken plays and Albert runs for a first down or throws for a touchdown. That’s just a kid who doesn’t want to lose and is a fantastic leader.”
Coming off Rundell’s big play, the Wildcats once again delivered another big play in a big moment. Facing a 4th and 3, Gabe Rohman hauled in a 30-yard touchdown pass from Schultz once again putting the Royals down two scores.
“We knew we wanted and needed more points,” Gustafson said about the big play on fourth down. “They are an explosive team. We were trying to get to that point where we had a little bit of breathing room where they couldn’t come down and nail another field goal at the end to beat us.”
Rundell would refuse to let the Royals’ comeback end there. After scrambling for 16 yards on 4th and 15 to keep the drive and season alive, he connected with Gannon Lee on a 32-yard touchdown to close the gap to just five with just under two minutes to play.
“Heart of a lion,” Phillips said about Rundell. “He’s a guy who absolutely didn’t want to lose this game. He’s been a fantastic leader for us for four years and a guy we’re going to miss. He’s a guy who left it all out there on the field tonight. I know this one hurts him but he’s had a heck of a career for us and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
The Royals were unable to recover the onside kick following the score and the Wildcats would pick up the first down needed to seal the win and secure a spot in the Class AAA state title.
“I know,” Gustafson said about what the difference was between this meeting and their earlier matchup. “(Hecksel) didn’t get to kick the last field goal. That kid can really kick the ball.”
The impressive run of teams in the East Central South district continues as the Wildcats will represent them in the Class AAA state title game. After Dassel-Cokato won it all last year, the teams in the district delivered again this year having two teams in the state semifinals for the third-straight season.
“You could say I’m biased but I think we play in the toughest district in the state,” Phillips said. “Last year, we sent three teams to the state tournament. This year we sent two. I told the guys coming in that somebody from our district is going to play for a state championship and that says a lot. We play tough football every week. There are not a lot of weeks where we get to take a game off. That allows us to be in games like this.”
Gustafson echos that statement.
“I don’t think there’s a tougher district,” he said. “It’s hard to survive week in and week out. It truly does bode well for you if you can survive it. “
With the loss for W-M, the Royals ended their incredible run and season with an overall record of 11-2 as the seniors on this year’s team took the program to a whole new level.
At 0-18, they all could have quit,” an emotional Phillips said. “I hope when it all settles here tonight, I hope they are all proud of themselves. They didn’t quit and we got to play here and that was a lot of fun. If we had a Mount Rushmore of Watertown-Mayer football we wouldn’t be able to put just four people on it. We’d have to put that whole class up there.”
Follow Kip Kovar on Twitter – @Kovar_HJSports