SECTION 4AA FOOTBALL: Irish hang on against rival HLWW in Section 4AA quarterfinals

MAPLE LAKE – Seniors play a big role for any football team. The 17 seniors on the Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted football team mean even more.

Without them, there would have been no thrilling win last year to snap their losing streak. Without them, there would be no season this year. Without them, they wouldn’t have found themselves with a chance to tie the game in the first round of the Section 4AA playoffs against rival Maple Lake.

While HLWW’s season came to an end with a 14-6 loss to rival Maple Lake Tuesday night, the impact those seniors have made on the Lakers’ program the past few seasons is undeniable.

“It’s unbelievable,” Anderson said about his seniors. “You remember covering us and we were looking at a potential co-op. All those guys came out and came together and helped us field a varsity team on our own. They took their licks being all young kids. They were all sophomores playing back then. They’ve been getting better and better. Even though the results aren’t there, they all kept coming out. Clearly, they got better and better every year. They definitely left a trail. They’ve left a trail that hopefully, we can continue to go down and build on.”

The Lakers were looking to win a postseason game for the second season in a row, and they got off to a great start thanks to sophomore Collin Boese. Just when it looked like the Irish were going to go in for a score in the opening quarter, Boese recovered a fumble and returned it 99 yards for the Lakers to give them a 6-0 lead early.

“That was a huge play,” Anderson said. “We’ve been talking a lot about that this year. We’ve been good defensively inside the red zone. We have that bend but don’t break mentality. We talk about how guys fumble the football on the goal line. You see it all the time at all levels of football. It was great to see our guys not giving up and it led to a big play for us.”

With 40 seconds left in the first quarter, Maple Lake took the lead as quarterback Brayden Belanger scored on a sneak from the one-yard line. With the extra point, Maple Lake held a 7-6 lead.

HLWW and Maple Lake traded field position and punts for much of the second quarter as the Irish took a 7-6 lead into the locker room.

Both defenses continued to dominate in the second half. After the Irish took a 14-6 lead on another sneak by Belanger, HLWW’s defense delivered four crucial stops the rest of the way as the Irish turned it over on downs, keeping it a one-score game.

“Our defense is good,” Anderson said. “The number of points we’re giving up doesn’t reflect how well our defense is playing. Our defense has been making plays all year. When we give the defense a short field, it’s tough to stop teams when they get four downs and aren’t worried about punting or kicking a field goal. They’ve realized that one of our strengths is our defense. When we leaned on them, we stayed in ballgames.”

Needing a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the game, HLWW had a drive going with just over minutes left to play. The Lakers ultimately turned it over on downs, giving the ball back to Maple Lake with just two timeouts remaining.

Needing another stop, the Lakers leaned on their defense once again. They delivered, forcing a three and out, giving the ball back to their offense with just over two minutes left to play.

“They’ve been awesome,” Anderson said about his defense. “They are really disciplined. It’s the best thing. We’ve got kids that pay attention to their job and embrace their roles. They didn’t force as many turnovers tonight, but the ones they did were big ones.”

With just over two minutes to go, the Lakers needed to go 77 yards after having less than 50 yards of offense all game long. That didn’t matter.

“They’ve shown me and it’s no surprise,” Anderson said. “These kids have a lot of heart. They play hard. They play hard for each other.”

With senior Bennett Paulson in at quarterback despite dealing with an injury, HLWW got a drive going. A swing pass to Boese got the Lakers moving forward. Follow that up with a nice gain by Noah Bush and the Lakers were cruising. Another swing pass to Boese, and just like that, HLWW was at the Maple Lake 14-yard line with just over a minute to play.

HLWW took multiple shots to the end zone, but the Maple Lake defense held firm as they held on for the 14-6 win, ending the season for the Lakers.

“It was what we thought it was going to be,” Anderson said. “It was two teams grinding it out for potentially their last game of the year. It’s playoff football and rivalry football. It’s a game of inches isn’t it?”

For the complete story and more Herald Journal sports coverage, check out the Friday, Nov. 20 edition of the Herald Journal. Click here for subscription information. 

Follow Kip Kovar on Twiter. @Kovar_HJSports

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