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A Great Run

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Elk River running back Jon Suchy sprints away from the Apple Valley defense.

Elk River running back Jon Suchy sprints away from the Apple Valley defense.

Connor Van Hulzen

Connor Van Hulzen

Elk River running back Jon Suchy sprints away from the Apple Valley defense.

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The Apple Valley Eagles’ football team ended their bid for their first football state title since 1993 Friday afternoon after a hard-fought 51-40 loss to Elk River at U.S. Bank Stadium.

The Elks’ signature “T” offense kept rolling, as they racked up 700 rushing yards and didn’t pass the ball once. Elks junior running back Adam Nelson ran for 252 yards in the first half and 302 yards total. Nelson’s success was due in large part to the deceptive nature of the Elk River offense, which allowed him to break into the secondary for several big plays.

In the first half, the Eagles defense struggled at times to identify which Elk River back actually had the ball, tackling one only to find the actual ball carrier broke into the secondary for a big gain. Apple Valley senior linebacker and running back Kellen McKeag said, “It’s super challenging […] they get these huge plays and it’s hard to keep it out of your head. […] They’re an old school team, and the old school stuff still works.”

The Eagles started out strong, forcing an Elk River punt on the game’s first series and then marching down the field to score on a one-yard touchdown plunge by McKeag. Apple Valley’s seniors stepped up in a big way, as quarterback Tyler Cardella threw for 263 yards and three touchdowns and Nathan Macho put up 142 yards on seven catches, two of which were touchdowns.

Connor Van Hulzen
Apple Valley celebrates running back Kellen McKeag’s opening touchdown.

However, after being stopped on their first series, Elk River went on an offensive blitz, scoring touchdowns on their next four drives, including three drives that were less than 80 seconds long. Nelson credited the offense as a unit, saying, “I give the credit to the linemen, they let us do our thing, do our job.”

The Elks line, anchored by North Dakota State commit Ronnie Audette, succeeded in giving their backs just enough room to break into the secondary. The Eagles defensive unit was at times able to bring down Elk rushers for short gains, but wasn’t able to pick up key stops on several third and fourth down situations.

Throughout the game, offense reigned supreme, as there were 91 total points and over 1,200 yards gained between the two teams. The back and forth, high octane style was not a surprise to either team, though. “We knew we had some powerful offenses on both sides […] We were prepared for a shootout,” said Apple Valley quarterback Tyler Cardella. Elk River coach Steve Hamilton added, “These guys have [run the T system] for seven years. We just have a mentality of, ‘We are going to get off the ball, we are going to play physical.’”

Connor Van Hulzen
Elk River quarterback Mitch Stroh hands off to running back Kevin Egbujor.

After a dramatic, almost unbelievably fast-paced first half, the game slowed down considerably in the second half. The Apple Valley defense found some stability, forcing Elk River into third down situations and the big plays that had sustained the Elks in the first half became less common.

Eagles’ head coach Chad Clendening said, “I think the awe factor settled down [at halftime] and we as coaches adjusted a little bit of our schemes also in the second half.” While Elk River put up some impressive numbers against Apple Valley, the Eagles were not the first team this season to have trouble with Elk River’s “now you see it, now you don’t” offense. They regularly put up 40 to 60 points a game during the regular season in 2017, and scored 42 points to win the state championship last year.

 

As a team known for defense, the Eagles had to alter their strategy in order to keep up with the offensive-minded Elks. There were 10 lead changes in the game, and the only time either team was up by more than one possession was when Elk River quarterback Mitch Stroh ran in a touchdown with 6:14 left in the game to put the Elks up by 11.

Turnovers were virtually the only stumbling block for either team when it came to scoring. The Eagles had one promising drive cut short when Elk River defensive back Devon Garrison made a spectacular one-handed interception deep in Elk territory. Later, Apple Valley defensive back Josh Arnold saved a likely touchdown for the Eagles by running down Nelson after a breakaway run, stripping the ball loose and recovering the fumble in one motion.

Connor Van Hulzen
Elk River defensive back Tristan Carlson intercepts a pass intended for Apple Valley’s Nathan Macho.

Another key component of the game was two point conversions. The Elks were 6-for-6 on two point tries, while the Eagles came up short on both their attempts. Hamilton estimated that his team’s conversion rate on the season was about 85%, and views the strategy as just part of his normal game plan. “To me it has always made sense […] We’re a pretty good three yard offense. We like our chances,” he explained.

At the end of the day, Clendening praised the core group of seniors that has brought Apple Valley football to where it is today. “This group of seniors in particular […] many of them have been three year starters and contributors. They’ve changed the identity of our program. […] These guys really epitomize what we want our program to represent on the field and off.”

With their win, Elk River advances to the state final, where they will have a chance to become back-to-back state champions. They will play the winner of Brainerd and Owatonna on Saturday, November 25 at 7:00 pm at U.S. Bank Stadium.

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A Great Run