Late Score Propels Eagles to State Tournament

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Brady LaBahn

Apple Valley has seen recent success versus Eastview on the gridiron after years of tough losses.

After a back-and-forth game between Apple Valley and Park of Cottage Grove on Friday night, senior quarterback Noah Sanders ran for a one-yard touchdown with 49 seconds left to give the Eagles a 42-35 lead. An interception by junior cornerback Josh Arnold with 8 seconds on the clock solidified both a win for AVHS and their first state tournament berth since 2013.

After stopping Park on 4th-and-5 on the game’s first series, the Eagles’ offense drove down the field–thanks to a 52 yard catch-and-run by junior Trey Kocher–and capped off the drive with a 6-yard touchdown run by Sanders.

Noah Sanders prepares to receive the snap as the Park High School student section looks on.
Brady LaBahn
Noah Sanders prepares to receive the snap as the Park High School student section looks on.

However, Park dominated most of the first half. Wolfpack quarterback Brandon Alt rushed for three touchdowns in the half alone, while an interception and a short drive on offense for AVHS threatened to destroy the Eagles’ state tournament dreams before halftime.

Luckily, the Apple Valley defense refused to give in. Captain linebacker Shane Sande ran a Park fumble back for a touchdown with under two minutes to go in the second quarter, giving the Eagles much-needed momentum going into halftime.

Head Coach Chad Clendening was pleased with how his defense persevered, saying, “They just keep playing. You could see the turnovers and the key stops that played a role.”

With the halftime score placing the Wolfpack ahead 28-21, both teams looked for good starts to the third quarter. Apple Valley succeeded, scoring on their first drive in the second half on a 26-yard strike from Sanders to junior Nathan Macho. Park answered with a 30-yard pass from Alt to Brendan Beaulieu, preserving Park’s seven point lead going into the final quarter, 35-28.

Before the fourth quarter began, Apple Valley coaches could be heard asking their players, “Do you get beat in the fourth quarter?” Every member of the team shouted that no, they did not, and they proved it on the field.

Mario Lewis carries the ball during the fourth quarter.
Brady LaBahn
Mario Lewis carries the ball during the fourth quarter.

Sanders and senior running back Mario Lewis carried the Eagles’ offense down the stretch, each scoring one touchdown, and showing why they are rightfully the centerpieces of the Apple Valley offensive unit. When asked about the leadership of Sanders and Lewis, Clendening said, “Those guys have been great. They don’t panic, and they just say ‘Everyone do your job.’”

The rest of the team did their jobs, too, as the defense held Park to zero points in the final quarter and produced two turnovers: the Arnold interception to seal the game, and a fumble recovery by senior Marcus Hosea, Jr., earlier in the quarter. The offense also did its part, putting together two scoring drives, and converting on key downs.

With the Eagles bound for state, here’s what you need to know about this year’s Class 5A tournament:

Expect to see some unfamiliar schools. For fans looking for other District 196 and South Suburban Conference schools, look to the Class 6A tournament. Apple Valley is the only team in the SSC that has 5A designation, which is determined by school size.

As a result, the Eagles have almost exclusively played larger schools all season. That tough schedule has been viewed as one of Apple Valley’s biggest strengths all year. As Sanders commented following the win, “[That schedule has] seasoned us, where we can have that confidence where we know when it’s a tie game, we can go down and score at any point.”

High-powered offenses will most likely steal the show. Out of all eight Class 5A section final games, seven section champions scored at least 35 points. This includes not only Apple Valley, but also their first-round opponent, Owatonna. The Huskies had a 6-2 record during the regular season, and defeated Northfield 38-20 on Friday night. Owatonna was also Apple Valley’s first opponent in the 2013 state tournament, defeating the Eagles 32-0.

The unanimous top offense in the Class 5A tournament is Elk River. The Elks run a type of offense called a wing-T option, which features a lot of misdirection and often leaves opposing defenses confused. If you want to see proof of its success, look no further than the Elks’ undefeated record, and the two games in which they scored over 60 points. Elk River also beat defending state champion St. Michael-Albertville 56-0 to advance to the state tournament.

The venue may outshine anything that happens on the field. The semifinals and finals of all seven state tournaments will be held at the Minnesota Vikings’ new crown jewel, U.S. Bank Stadium. For the vast majority of players, it will be the only time they ever play in the new stadium, which will no doubt add some excitement and passion to all of the games being played, from 9-Man to Class 6A.

Below is the schedule for the Class 5A tournament, per the Minnesota State High School League website:

Quarterfinals

  • Apple Valley vs. Owatonna @ Lakeville North High School, 6:00 PM, Saturday Nov. 12
  • Alexandria vs. Elk River @ St. Cloud State Univ., 8:00 PM, Saturday Nov. 12
  • Mahtomedi vs. Mankato West @ Farmington High School, 6:00 PM, Saturday Nov. 12
  • Andover vs. Spring Lake Park @ Centennial High School, 7:00 PM, Friday Nov. 11

Semifinals

  • Apple Valley/Owatonna vs. Alexandria/Elk River, @ U.S. Bank Stadium, 2:00 PM, Friday Nov. 18
  • Mahtomedi/Mankato West vs. Andover/Spring Lake Park, @ U.S. Bank Stadium, 7:00 PM, Saturday Nov. 19

Finals

  • Winner of Semifinal 1 vs. Winner of Semifinal 2, @ U.S. Bank Stadium, 4:00 PM, Saturday Nov. 26
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