Last-minute drive sends Lions past R-T-R to win quarterfinal, 27-26

ABOVE: Ethan Matzke gains 10 yards and a critical first down at the 18 yard-line with this reception on a third down-and-10 play with 39 seconds remaining. Spring Grove scored the winning touchdown on the next play. BELOW: Kai Bjerke leaps for game-winning touchdown catch in state quarterfinal. Photos by Cheryl Patterson
By : 
S. Lee Epps

Characteristically, a turnover ended a game that saw 11 total turnovers, including five interceptions. The third interception by top-ranked Spring Grove's Noah Elton snuffed out the last chance for a Nov. 9 state quarterfinal upset bid by unranked Russell-Tyler-Ruthton. That final play at New Ulm, snapped on first down at the Lion 20 yard-line with six seconds to play, came only 33 seconds after an Alex-Folz-to-Kai Bjerke 18-yard touchdown completion had put Spring Grove back ahead 27-26.

Despite an alarming seven turnovers and nine penalties, the Lions never trailed until R-T-R quarterback Cooper Hansen capped a 66-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown run with only 2:33 to play.

Both teams were battling a common opponent - the brutal weather. With temperatures in the high teens and wind chills below zero, playing conditions were cruel. The weather had much to do with the most Lion turnovers in the 17 seasons for which single-game records survive.

"It (weather) really affected our play," coach Zach Hauser told KFIL Radio. 

After the official spotted the ball, he would thwart the wind by keeping the pigskin in place between both feet until the center arrived from the huddle. Every kickoff had to be humanly held to keep the ball from blowing off the tee.

Passing or punting the ball was a perilous proposition for two teams who feature a spread formation, passing attack with a shotgun snap.


The Knights (8-4) bravely attempted more than twice as many passes than did the Lions. Hansen completed only 8 of 24 passes for 164 yards with widely varying results. The 6-foot-1 senior signal caller was sacked three times and intercepted three times, but he also completed three touchdown passes.

The difference on the scoreboard ultimately came down to extra points. R-T-R went to the air on all four extra-points plays. He completed only one with the other three broken up in order by Bjerke, Alex Folz and Elton.


Folz, averaging nearly 19 passes per game, had gone upstairs only three times with no success before the Lions' final possession. Cooper had picked off two of those tosses with 53 return yards.

But facing elimination with 2:33 remaining, Spring Grove turned to the pass for 8 of the 10 plays on the 52-yard, game-saving drive. Folz completed 4 of those 8 aerials - the first three for first downs before the TD toss.

Folz found Elton for 9 yards, Bjerke for 10 yards and Ethan Matzke for another 10 yards and a first down at the 18 yard-line with 39 seconds to play.

Folz then dropped back and lofted to ball to a leaping Bjerke in the back of the end zone. An extra-points pass was unsuccessful, but the Lions were still up by one point.

But Hansen and the Knights were not finished. After two incomplete passes (one broken up by Matzke), Hansen scrambled for 11 yards, and then a 25-yard hook-and-ladder pass play took the ball to the SG 20 yard-line. 

But only six seconds remained. Hansen sent the final pass toward the goal line where Elton picked it off at the one and fell down to end the game with all the other Lions leaping in celebration.


With both offenses battling the wind and cold, the Lions twice appeared in good shape with two-touchdown leads. Spring Grove spirits were highest when Elton raced 97 yards to put the Lions up 21-6 early in the second half.

Before then, a 13-0 Lion lead had looked pretty good when it appeared that the weather would stifle most offensive tactics.

Winning the pre-game coin toss, Spring Grove deferred until the second half and was able to play the entire first quarter in R-T-R territory. The Knights were unable to earn a first down during their first five possessions or punt effectively into the wind. That allowed the Lions to travel only 35 yards for a 7-0 lead and only 27 yards for their second score.

After the first punt went only 6 yards into the wind, R-T-R threw an incomplete pass on the next fourth down. SG then drove 35 yards in four plays with Tyler Kersten scoring from 11 yards out.

No one knew then that the extra-point kick by Folz would eventually be the winning margin.

After the second R-T-R punt traveled only 8 yards into the wind, the Lions began their second scoring possession at the Knight 27. Folz would score from the one, but the extra-point run was unsuccessful for a 13-0 lead early in the second quarter.


The ball finally crossed midfield when Hansen punted 28 yards. After already having fumbled away one opportunity at the Knight 17 yard-line, the Lions lost a fumble at their own 23.

R-T-R with only 7 yards of offense through the previous five possessions, would take advantage of the SG mistake with Hansen running four times before passing 4 yards to Corbyn Sitzman for a touchdown. That 13-6 score held until halftime.

The second half began with a 21-yard SG run and lost fumble. After a fourth-down stop, the next Lion possession ended with an interception returned to the SG 19. Hansen had an apparent first down run inside the 10 when Tristan Hammel forced a fumble that Elton recovered at the one. 

Two plays later, Elton took a pitchout on the goal line, broke between blocks from Matzke and Caden Grinde and would sprint across the other goal line for an official 97-yard touchdown run.

Just when it had looked like R-T-R would tie or go ahead, the Lions were back in front by two scores, 21-6.

But the Knights came right back to go 66 yards in only five plays with Hansen hitting freshman Jonah Christensen with a 38-yard TD pass. (SG 21, R-T-R 14)

The Lions then marched 42 yards before losing a fumble at the R-T-R 20. Hansen connected with Christensen for 79 yards to get within one point (21-20) with 9:06 on the clock.

 SG was on the way to sealing the outcome with an insurance touchdown but fumbled at the Knight 34 - a seventh turnover in 13 possessions.

Six plays and a 15-yard SG penalty later, Hansen scored from the three, and R-T-R had its first lead 26-21 with 2:33 to play.   

After gaining only 92 yards in their first 11 possessions, the Knights had suddenly become unstoppable in their next three possessions with 209 yards and three touchdowns. Hansen finished with 144 yards rushing, and in extremely adverse conditions - 164 yards passing.

"They kind of spread us out a little bit," said Hauser "and took advantage of his speed getting to the edges. He didn't complete a lot of passes, but when he did, they were big first downs or touchdowns."


But with their backs to the wall, the Lion heroes came through. After surely the most frustrating game in his celebrated career, Folz engineered a game-saving 52-yard drive. 

Bjerke made an unforgettable game-changing grab, and time ran out before R-T-R and Cooper Hansen could answer again.

"Alex had a hard time handling ball, getting a grip on the ball, passing the ball," said Hauser. "But I think he dug deep on that last drive and knew that if we didn't get it done, the season was going to be over. We completed a few big third downs.

"When we really needed him there at the end, he pulled through for us."

After the game, Folz said of the late rally that the team had been in similar situations before and knew they could come back. 

That is true for the Spring Grove senior leaders, but it had been a year since the Lions had trailed late in a game. And with many new starters, SG had trailed for only five plays in the previous 10 games this season. Confidence stood the test of time.


Elton was incomparable on both offense and defense. He came in as Lions' leading pass receiver for the season, but on this frigid night, he caught one SG pass and three R-T-R tosses.

"He (Elton) was the key to us winning the game," said Hauser. "We put him on R-T-R's all-state wide receiver, Carter Hansen. And he did a tremendous job."

Matzke and Kyle Hagen each had 10 tackles, and Takoda Boyd was in on 9 stops.

Coming in at 8-3, the unranked Knights came as close as possible to an upset of undefeated and top-ranked Spring Grove. R-T-R displayed team speed, sure tackling, a dual threat running and passing quarterback and an unquenchable will to win.

The total yardage was almost as close as the score with the Knights gaining 11 more yards, 348 to 337.

The Lions had more than twice as many penalties (9 to 4) and penalty yards (61 to 25) and lost the turnover battle 7 to 4. 

But the SG defense stopped all six R-T-R fourth down plays and broke up three of the Knights' four extra-points plays.


The Lion coaches adapted to the weather conditions by altering the game plan. Elton, the team's leading receiver was moved into the backfield - a seldom-used two and three-back package. He carried eight times for 118 yards, most coming on the record-tying 97-yard dash. Folz rushed for 115 hard-fought yards on 36 carries. Elton, Folz and Kersten each had a touchdown run.

Both teams had played in the state semi-finals last season, but only one could advance this year. In the harshest of playing conditions, Spring Grove (11-0) overcame an unprecedented number of turnovers with just enough defensive stops in critical situations. 

And after all but abandoning the pass during the first 45 minutes, the Lions turned to the toss in the last two and half minutes to score late and turn away an inspired opponent.

The players were not alone in the elements as two fan buses plus other vehicles also made the six-hour round trip to New Ulm. It was a night no one in attendance will forget.

The old playoff adage of "survive and advance" had more relevance than usual, especially the "survive" - even for those who did not advance.


SG 27, R-T-R 26

SG----7--6--8---6 = 27

RTR--0--6--8--12 = 26


            TEAM TOTALS

YARDAGE (rush+pass): SG  337 (290+ 47); RTR 348 (184+164

RUSHING: att.-yards (avg.)

SG 49-290 (5.9) 3 TD (+PAT); RTR 38-184 (4.8) TD

PASSES: comp-att-int, yds. 

SG 4-11-2, 47 yds. TD; RTR 8-24-3, 164 yds. 3TD, +PAT

Sacks allowed: SG 0, RTR 3

TOUCHDOWNS: SG 3 rush, 1 pass; RTR 1 rush, 3 pass 

PAT:  RTR 1-4 (1-4 pass); SG 2-4 (kick 1-1, run 1-2, pass 0-1)





PENALTIES: SG 9-61, RTR 4-25

3rd downs: SG 7-14, RTR 4-14

4th downs: SG 1-3, RTR 0-6

Red zone: SG 3-5, RTR 2-5

First downs: SG 14, RTR 13

PLAYS/20+ yards: SG 2, RTR 5



RUSHING: Alex Folz 36-151, TD (+PAT)Noah Elton 8-118, TDTyler Kersten 5-21, TD 

PASSING: Alex Folz 4-11-2, 47 yds., TD

RECEIVING: Kai Bjerke 2-28, TD; Ethan Matzke 1-10; Noah Elton 1-9

XP KICKING: Alex Folz 1-1


PUNT RETURNS: Noah Elton 1-3

PUNTING: Alex Folz 2-40 (20- avg.)

INTERCEPTIONS: Noah Elton 3-31

PASS BREAKUPS: Kai Bjerke 1, Chandler Bergrud 1, Ethan Matzke 1, Noah Elton 1


FUMBLES FORCED: Tristan Hammel 1

SACKS 3: Wyatt Murphy 1.0, Ethan Matzke 1.0, Takoda Boyd 0.5, Kyle Hagen 0.5

TACKLES for LOSS (incl. sacks): Kyle Hagen 1, Takoda Boyd 1, Ethan Matzke 1, Noah Elton 1, Wyatt Murphy 1

TACKLES (solo+assists): Ethan Matzke 10 (8+2), Kyle Hagen 10 (4+6), Takoda Boyd 9 (4+5), Calvin Sylling 5 (3+2), Kai Bjerke 4 (4+0), Alex Folz 4 (3+1), Noah Elton 4 (2+2), Tristan Hamel 3 (1+2), Chandler Bergrud 2 (2+0), Wyatt Murphy 1 (1+0), 

VARSITY FOOTBALL*East Sub-district games

11-0 (7-0 sub-district) 

W at Cleveland/Immanuel Lutheran 56-12

W vs. *Lyle/Pacelli 62-16

W *at Mabel-Canton 54-12

W vs. *Randolph 46-28

W*at Lanesboro 49-16

W vs.*Houston (Homecoming) 35-14

W*at Grand Meadow 35-6

W vs. *LeRoy-Ostrander 63-38


forfeit from Lyle/Pacelli

W vs. Mabel-Canton 42-14

W vs. Houston 28-6


W vs. Russell-Tyler-Ruthton 27-26




at Randolph, cancelled

W vs. Grand Meadow 22-6

W at Mabel-Canton 30-0 (game called by lightning in second quarter)

W vs. Houston 28-0

W at LeRoy-Ostrander 38-12


Spring Grove/Mabel-Canton Junior High football 


W vs. Houston 39-0

W at LeRoy-Ostrander5 32-20

W vs. Lyle/Pacelli 20-19

L at Lanesboro 12-40

L vs. Randolph 7-13