by Bruce Strand
Perhaps by now Denis Bardashevskiy should have a nickname. The Russian Rocket maybe?
Launched time and again by the rugged Elk River line, Bardashevskiy propelled the Elks to a wild 53-42 playoff victory over the Rogers Royals on Saturday, scoring five touchdowns on straight-ahead, open-field runs while totaling a school-record 370 yards.
In a dizzying display of football that often looked more like pinball, with no less than seven lead changes, the Elks also had a pick six by Terry Hadden and touchdown runs from Nick Johnson and third-sting quarterback Clay Elrod as they overcame stellar performances by the Rogers offense and special teams.
“All glory to God,” said Bardashevskiy, who also credited his beefy friends up front. “The blocks were excellent. My linemen are doing a fantastic job.”
Breaking the yellowing Elk record of 340 yards set by Jeff Hawkins in 1973, Bardashevshkiy darted through the line into an open field five times and hit the afterburners for touchdowns of 81, 22, 25, 69, and 90 yards. The Russian-born teen (he arrived in the U.S. at 12 months) also broke Hawkin’s single-season record of 1,655, raising his total to 1,693 yards on 201 carries (and counting).
The No. 5 seeded Elks (5-5) face No. 3 St. Michael-Albertville (7-3) on Friday on the Knights’ field. The Knights beat No. 2 seed Monticello 10-0.
For Rogers (7-2), Connor Henderson passed for 177 yards and a 38-yard touchdown to Levi Simpson, plus a 53-yard strike to Parker Veith that set up a QB sneak for the opening TD. Jake Owens rushed for 105 yards and a 20-yard touchdown. Nick Weber had a 7-yard TD and a kick return TD.
Special teams helped kept them in the game as Weber broke the 85-yard kick return, Issac Aanerud drilled long kickoffs and made field goals from 30 and 42 yards, Mitch Grupa added a 22-yard field goal, Parker Veith recovered an onside kick from Aanerud, and the extra-points defense crew stopped four of six two-pointers. The Royals led 32-27 at the half.
But the Royals, who had allowed only 28 points in four straight wins, gave up a staggering 516 yards rushing, the bulk of it to Bardashevskiy.
“I thought we had an answer for him, and just when you think you’ve got things figured out, you don’t,” said Royals coach Marc Franz. “Obviously, you look at the score — I don’t have an answer. It’s a tough one (to stop) and they’ve got it going right now …. It’s hard to decipher where it (the ball) is.”
Also notable in the Elks victory is the fact that they were down to their third quarterback and “didn’t miss a beat,” in Hamilton’s words.
Austin Larson, who rushed of 196 yards at Willmar in a 51-28 win, suffered a twisted ankle early in the first period when he was hit on the play where Bardashevskiy ran 81 yards. Jordan Johnson, who started the first five games and missed the next four with knee and ankle injuries, played on an unsteady ankle until early in the third quarter when he re-injured it.
Clay Elrod, the starting tight end, who saw some QB action in two conference games, took over, and kept the ground game humming while delivering a 26-yard touchdown run, plus a conversion run.
“I was in the flow of the game already, and they put me in there and I was ready to go,” said Elrod, a 6-5 junior who led the basketball team with 18 ppg as a sophomore. “I liked it (the challenge).”
“It made a huge difference,” said John Pink, quarterbacks coach, “having Clay Elrod in that situation. He is a clutch player under pressure. He has played in a lot of big games.”
After Elrod’s TD around left end (on a busted play that was supposed to go to a halfback), Rogers made its lone special teams miscue, a high snap to the punter that perched the Elks on the Royals’ 25.
Bardashevskiy scored on the next play for the seventh lead change of the day, 39-35, and his next two carries made sure that lead would stick. Finally.
Rogers coach Franz said about his team’s 7-2 season: “I’ve said all year, we don’t have one great player, we have a bunch of really good players who play together as a team. We are not going to overpower anyone but I love how our kids compete. I loved how we competed today, although obviously we came out on the short end.”
Franz, about the season ending: “The toughest thing is saying goodbye to the seniors at the end of each year. I love to coach football and love to work with the kids, and you get to know them so much better in football than in the classroom. Football is not a game that a lot of people will go on to play after high school, so, you have the finality of it.”