Knights bottle up Royals 21-7 in rematch for section crown
by Bruce Strand
Elk River Star News sports
For the first five minutes of the second half, it appeared that Rogers Royals were taking charge of the section title game, and that their opponents would soon start to crumble, like most previous foes had this year once the Royals got going.
However, St. Michael-Albertville would not fade away. The Knights took Rogers’ best punch and answered quickly with a couple of their own, and wore down the previously-unbeaten Royals 21-7 on Friday evening in Rogers for the Section 5A-6 championship.
The Knights, who lost to the Royals 38-37 in overtime in the conference championship game three weeks earlier, take an 8-1 record to the state tournament.
“They did a phenomenal job bottling up our big play guys,” said Rogers coach Marc Franz. “You’ve got to give St. Michael credit. They came out and executed. They outplayed us and out-coached us tonight.”
It was a crushing setback for the Royals and their 20 seniors as they finished 8-1 with their offense shut down for the only time this year.
“The kids had high goals and achieved some of them,” said Franz. “I am proud we are in a situation in Rogers where we can set extremely high goals, and I mean realistically, not just paying lip service. But when you commit yourself to high goals like that, it hurts when you don’t reach them.”
Rogers was averaging 48 points, had never scored fewer than 38, and manhandled Elk River 52-14 six days earlier, so it was astonishing that the Knights blanked them 7-0 in the first half. The Royals’ lone good drive was stopped at the five-yard-line.
However, Rogers came out snorting after halftime. Nate Weber busted 48 yards for a touchdown on the third play to tie the score, after which the Royals’ fired-up defense threw the Knights for losses on two straight plays, and forced a punt. The Royals started from midfield and barged for two first downs. Then it fizzled.
Two penalties — a false start and a holding — made the Royals settle for a field goal attempt. It was a 38-yarder that’s normally a routine task for Isaac Aanerud, but this one fluttered wide right. The Royals had muffed their chance to take the lead, and they never got back in the groove offensively.
“I thought we had turned the corner there,” said Franz, “but penalties took away our momentum. But there were plenty of other (costly) plays in the game, too.”
The Knights, rejuvenated, quickly drove 79 yards, capped by Chris Kartel’s 35-yard burst for a touchdown.
“The momentum was definitely in Rogers’ favor,” said Essler, “when they scored right away, but we were able to hang in there and be resilient.”
Rogers committed a personal foul on the subsequent kick return, then another false start on a running play, and had to punt from its own 13.
The Knights were perched on the Royal 44 after the punt. They completed the one-two punch combo with Jackson Greenwaldt hitting Austin Wick for a seven-yard touchdown that made it 21-7.
When STMA stuffed a fourth-and-one sneak by Rogers quarterback Connor Henderson at the Knights’ 30 with seven minutes left, the game was pretty much over. In fact, they ran out the clock.
The Knights, who gave up 303 yards passing and 187 rushing in the loss to Rogers in the Mississippi 8 championship game, held the same team to 61 passing and 196 rushing in the Section 5A-6 championship game.
“The first time we played them was on a Wednesday, with two days prep,” said Essler. “This time we had more walk-throughs, more film, more practice time to work with defensive schemes, and the kids were able to handle a lot more that we threw at them. I think that was the difference tonight.”
The Royals are accustomed to several big plays per game, mainly from Gunnar Bloom (18 touchdowns) and Weber (16 touchdowns).
When Gunnar or Nate get into an open field, they are dangerous,” said Franz. “Nate got loose that one time but otherwise St. Michael did phenomenal job keeping them in check.”
Rogers averaged 5.9 yards per rush — Bloom had 65 in 15 carries, Weber 51 in four, and Travis Dietl 70 in 10 carries — but never got the big play on the ground or in the air.
“Joe Killian was phenomenal tonight,” said Essler, referring to his senior defensive end. “He was flying all over the place. All four of our linebackers were great.”
Meanwhile, Kartes barged for 134 yards in 21 carries for the Knights, who had 241 rushing and 118 passing.
The biggest play of the first half was supplied by Knight punter Jordan Joseph, who bolted 20 yards out of punt formation on fourth-and-three play. That kept alive their game-opening drive, which Noah Evans capped with a two-yard run.
Rogers responded with a swift, sure drive to the Knights five, including runs of 16 and 15 yards by Bloom. But the Knights stuffed him twice, and when the Royals went for the TD on fourth down at the three, the Knights broke up a pass by Henderson.
“I think that was big for our confidence,” said Essler. “When the field shrinks down there, you can be more aggressive with your defensive backs and corners, and we were able to make some plays and get off the field. They had really been moving the ball. So that was a turning point.”
The Knights fumbled five times in the first half, but recovered three, and two of those came on their touchdown drive. They got a break late in the half when another apparent fumble was recovered by Rogers at the Knights 10 but an official ruled that the ball was down before the fumble.
In the long, sad huddle with his seniors in the end zone after the game, Franz expressed how much respect he had for the effort they put in, the esteem he felt for them, and how much the coaches would miss working with them every day.
“When you decide to play a competitive sport,” Franz reflected, his voice quivering slightly, “you know that it’s almost always going to end in a loss. And it’s always sudden. You always think, ‘I thought we had a little more in us.’ You never get used to it.”