By Jake Schroer
Crow River News sports
When STMA head football coach Jared Essler told his team “we will win a section championship,” he meant it.
Those words came to fruition during Friday’s section championship against the Rogers Royals; a team that beat the Knights for the Mississippi 8 championship the last time they clashed.
The first time these teams met, offense dominated the game. This time around, the story changed completely.
STMA’s first drive was a long one, culminating in a two yard touchdown run by Noah Evans at the 4:52 mark of the opening quarter. The Knights nearly fumbled the ball away on the opening play of the game.
A fake punt highlighted STMA’s first drive as Jordan Joseph ran for a big gain on 4th down.
The Royals cut through the Knights defense and set up a goal-to-go situation. The Knights rose to the occasion, making a goal line stand and turning Rogers over on downs.
Both teams excelled defensively in the first half. STMA missed multiple scoring opportunities and created some for the Royals. But the Knights defense held firm, shutting the Royals out for the duration of the first half.
Despite six fumbles (two lost) in the first half, STMA led 7-0 at halftime.
The second half started with a bang for the Royals. Rogers needed all of 34 seconds to tie the game as Nate Weber scampered for a 48 yard touchdown. Momentum swung to the Rogers sideline.
The score remained 7-7 until Chris Kartes broke through with a 29 yard touchdown run late in the third quarter. As the third quarter ended, the Knights drove deep into Royals territory. Early in the fourth, Jackson Greenwaldt rolled to the left and found Austin Wick for a touchdown and a 21-7 lead.
Facing a two touchdown deficit, the Royals embarked on a last gasp drive. After Rogers converted some big third downs, STMA halted the drive with 5:25 left in regulation. STMA turned to Kartes, who finished with 134 yards and a touchdown, among others.
Several minutes later, the Knights finished the game. STMA fans stormed the field and celebrated with the team that avenged more than just its lone loss of the regular season; the Knights lost at home to Elk River in last year’s section final.
Head coach Jared Essler told his team to go and celebrate with the students after the game. Essler said that six fumbles is not his team’s identity.
Essler said that the first encounter favored the offenses because of a short practice week.
“This week, we had a full week to prepare, and we did a lot more with our defensive schemes, the kids were a lot more confident, and they flew around,” he said. He noted that the defensive players and coaches felt they let the team down giving up so many points in the conference title game.
Essler thought his team should have won the conference championship game; a feeling he used to motivate his players throughout the week.
“We’re normally a team that hangs our hat on defense and wins with defense, plays field position football, tries not to turn the ball over, and I think we did those things tonight and that was the difference.”
Sartell defeated Moorhead for the Section 8 championship on Saturday night, so the Knights will face Sartell tonight at St. Cloud State University in the first round of the state tournament at 7 p.m.