The Wolves went toe-to-toe with Mahnomen-Waubun, arguably one of the best teams in Class A football, and had them on the ropes in front of a stunned crowd Friday night at Ostlund Field.
Walker-Hackensack-Akeley moved the ball at will in the first half and forced three Thunderbirds turnovers in the first quarter alone to grab a 14-6 lead. They left another six points at the goal line and dropped two passes that would have moved the chains.
By the time the first half ended, the game was tied 14-14, with Mahnomen-Waubun set to receive the second-half kick off. The Thunderbirds marched down the field and scored to take a 20-14 lead, and then capitalized on some WHA mistakes, a dropped touchdown and some penalties on their way to a 42-14 win.
Riley Welk accounted for 264 yards of WHA’s 286 yards, including 209 passing yards and two rushing touchdowns where he called both plays at the line of scrimmage. He completed 17-26 passes to eight different receivers and did not throw a pick. He also had a touchdown pass dropped in the third quarter and had a couple big plays negated on penalties.
Kenner Bell caught six passes for 98 yards, Tyler Sea one catch for 45 yards, Carter Opheim five receptions for 36 yards and two by Joe Pinski for 22 yards. Seth Djernes, Connor Craven, Jackson Macfarlane and Austin Minor each caught a pass.
Coach Aaron Pfeiffer and his staff scrapped the play book this week and went to an empty backfield and a spread offense with anywhere from four to five receivers. He got the idea after watching tape on Pillager’s upset loss last year in the playoffs, where West Central Area used the same strategy.
“We had nothing to lose. Clayton Copple told me teams don’t defend well [against] what they don’t do very much of, and we thought this was our best chance to win,” Pfeiffer said. “We have a quarterback who has a lot of talent and we got a lot of kids who can catch the ball and do something with it once they do. Everybody probably doesn’t think we can’t give this team a game.”
The boys were willing to buy into what Pfeiffer had in mind and worked on it together. “We tweaked a few things in practice and got our timing down. This could not have happened without the leadership of our quarterback. He made some great game-time decisions,” the coach noted. “It made it possible to have a great first half and move the ball on a team that knew how to stop us conventionally.”
Injuries and cramping played a part in the second half as the Thunderbirds had 55 players to WHA’s 32, and they only played a handful both ways. The Wolves lost Gavin Johannsen, Tom Hansen, Djernes, Bell, Opheim and Welk, who each went down, while the Thunderbirds had two players dinged up.
Johannsen’s injury could cost him the rest of the season, while the other five probably will be ready to go Friday at Red Lake.
“Based on the comments after the game, they felt if we would have had more depth, we could have beaten them with that scheme. We just ran out of gas,” the coach said.
The Wolves won the toss and elected to receive the ball. They picked up a first down but had to punt with Welk pinning the Thunderbirds at their 20. Four plays later TJ Smith, Austin Smith and Djernes hit the runner short of a first down and Walker took over at the 39.
Walker quickly drove to the five-yard line, but a sack and two penalties ended the threat as they turned the ball over on downs at the six.
A fumble recovery by Opheim at the 29 ended in another turnover on downs, but one play later Craven stripped and recovered a second fumble at the 34. Six plays later and on the final play of the first quarter Welk scored on a two-yard run with Bell adding the extra point.
The Thunderbirds answered with a five-play, 64-yard drive to cut the lead to one on Parker Syverson’s 26-yard run. Quarterback Jon Starkey, who ran the veer to perfection, connected with Syverson for a 28-yard pass play on a fourth down to keep the drive going.
The Wolves wasted no time by taking the lead again on a 71-yard drive with Welk completing two passes for 17 and 19 yards, gaining 15 on a run and then scoring on a one-yard sneak. Bell added the extra point for 14-6 lead with 5 minutes to play.
Starkey led his team down the field and scored on a six-yard run and also ran in the conversion to tie the game.
Walker went right back to work with 2:20 to play, but a dropped pass on third down forced a second Welk punt downed at the 20. The Thunderbirds’ drive stalled just across midfield as the half ended.
“What we learned is that we are a team that can play that type of game, and we are going to work on making sure we do capitalize in red zone. Down the road we might run into a team that can take away our run, and we’ve got to be able to answer that,” Pfeiffer said.
The Thunderbirds took the second half kickoff from their 42, thanks to a kick out of bounds, and scored nine plays later on Starkey’s 10-yard run where he faked the pitch and went right by the defender. WHA did stop the run to keep it a six-point game.
Disaster struck on the ensuing kick as the Thunderbirds recovered a live ball at the 23 after a WHA player did not pick it up. Six plays later Syverson scored on a six-yard run and they added the two-point conversion on Starkey’s pass to Treston Spalla.
On Walker’s next possession — their only one of the third quarter compared to four in the first and two in the second —they had to punt after a three-and-out.
Mahnomen-Waubun marched from their own 26 deep into Walker territory, thanks to two penalties, and scored on Travis Zima’s 16 yard run. Starkey found another receiver in the end zone for a 36-14 lead early in the fourth.
Walker had two possessions in the final quarter and moved the ball twice. They turned it over on downs the first time but got it back on a fumble recovered by Colton Hein at the Wolves’ 32. Walker moved right down the field, thanks to Welk and Sea connecting on a 45-yard bomb. On the very next play, a touchdown pass was dropped in the end zone and Walker turned it over on downs.
The Thunderbirds added a late touchdown after both teams took out their starters.
“I’m so proud of our guys. They really wanted to win and were hoping there was something they could do differently to do it. We couldn’t have been so successful in the first half without them believing we could do it. It was fun,” Pfeiffer added. “Even though the score looked bad, our boys were so pumped up. They love playing the game, said how much fun they had and how proud they were. We got better as a team.”
Defensively, several players had great games. Djernes led with 12 total tackles, Zach Josephson had 10, Austin Smith and Craven nine each, Pinski and Sea seven each, Johannsen six and Austin Minor with five total tackles.