The Apple Valley Eagles (9-1) took on the Mankato West Scarlets (10-1) at Shakopee West Junior High School on Saturday for a chance to play at US Bank Stadium in the State Semi-Finals.
The first quarter of this first state tournament game was a drawn out dogfight. Both teams had lengthy drives to begin the game.
The Eagles’ first drive began at their own 20 yard line after a touchback.
Apple Valley used its strong running game in order to establish its offense early. Senior running back Kellan McKeag and senior quarterback Tyler Cardella ran for over 50 yards combined on the opening drive, with Cardella also finding senior wide receiver Nathan Macho twice for 25 yards in order to set up a 13 yard rushing touchdown by senior receiver Trey Kocher.
The Eagles’ lead did not last long, however. Mankato West stormed right back and scored a touchdown on a quarterback scramble by Jack Foster for 16 yards.
Apple Valley took control of the ball with under four minutes left in the first quarter looking to expand their lead.
The Eagles did just that. Immediately following a clutch fourth down conversion, Tyler Cardella ran 57 yards down the sideline for a touchdown, swinging the momentum of the game back into the Eagles’ favor.
Now up 14-7, Apple Valley needed to slow down the Scarlets’ offense on their next drive.
The defense bent but it did not break. A key goal line stand forced Mankato to settle for a field goal and gave the Eagles a chance to keep piling on the points.
Offensive coordinator Jeff Flugum decided it was time to turn the pass game in order to blow the game wide open. Cardella went 3-for-3 on the drive, connecting with senior wide receivers Justin Firpo, Nathan Macho, and Luke Martens on passes of 22, 21, and 12 yards to put the Eagles inside the redzone.
On the Scarlets’ 13 yard line, Flugum decided to turn to the bag of tricks. What seemed to be a routine handoff to Trey Kocher turned into a reverse to an offensive lineman. Senior offensive tackle Spencer Rolland got the handoff and lumbered into the endzone untouched. The 6’7” Rolland said, “It’s good to score, but it’s a lot better because it makes the entire team successful. I don’t care if it’s me or another guy, I’m just glad I could contribute to the win.”
Rolland wasn’t done with his amazing night quite yet, though. The ensuing Mankato West drive stalled, and on the following punt, Spencer got a partial block, giving the Eagles great field position inside the Scarlets’ 35 yard line.
Apple Valley got the ball back with two minutes left in the quarter looking to pad their lead before halftime.
After getting inside the 10 yard line, an 8 yard touchdown pass on third and goal from Tyler Cardella to Luke Martens gave the Eagles a 28-10 lead going into the half.
Coming out of halftime, Mankato West had the ball and was more motivated than ever. The Scarlets marched down the field, eventually scoring on a nine yard touchdown pass to help bring the game back within reach. A missed extra point meant that the score became 28-16.
The Eagles didn’t even wait for their next offensive drive to get one back. On the kickoff following the Mankato touchdown, junior Damien Swanson returned a 97-yard kickoff for a touchdown. The touchdown may have put the Eagles further ahead, 35-16, but more importantly, it energized the sideline and swung the momentum into Apple Valley’s favor.
Mankato West drove but were not able to sustain the drive, and the Scarlets were forced to go for it on fourth down. When the Eagles’ stout defense stopped them, Apple Valley took over on their own 40 yard line.
The Eagles turned to their rushing game to help close it out. The end result of the long, time-consuming drive was an Apple Valley touchdown scored by Kellan McKeag on an 8 yard rush. A missed extra point followed, and the score became 41-16.
Mankato West got the ball back, but Spencer Rolland decided that his night wasn’t over just yet. On a Scarlets fourth down conversion attempt, Spencer recovered a fumble inside the Apple Valley redzone to end the scoring threat.
Apple Valley was not able to capitalize on their next drive, so the Scarlets took over on the Eagles’ 42 yard line after a punt.
Mankato scored on a 36 yard touchdown run by Wesley Henderson, though they were not able to convert a two point conversion, slimming the Eagles’ lead to 41-22.
The Scarlets attempted an onside kick, but the Apple Valley hands team was able to recover the kick safely.
The Eagles drive was an attempt to run time off the clock, so on fourth down, Tyler Cardella ended up taking a sack while trying to stretch out the play as long as possible.
Mankato got the ball with 23 seconds left on the clock on their own 36 yard line. After a gain of 29 on a long pass, the Scarlets had the ball on the Eagles’ 35 with an opportunity to score once more before the end of the game. On a last second Hail Mary pass to Spencer Spaude, Mankato scored, but did not attempt an extra point to make the final score 41-28 in favor of the Eagles.
Senior linebacker Chris Antholz said, “We are really excited. We’ve finally made it to US Bank Stadium, and we’re just really excited to have a chance to keep moving on.”
The Eagles have advanced to the semi-finals of the state tournament, where they will play Elk River on Friday at 2:00 at US Bank Stadium.