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Fall staple: MLWR continues state tournament tradition

The Moose Lake-Willow River football team warms up before the Section 7AA final against Royalton on Thursday night in Esko. MLWR won 22-6 to advance to the state tournament. (Louie St. George III / lstgeorge@duluthnews.com)

ESKO — Fall in the Northland brings with it a few certainties.

One of them is Dave Louzek coaching his Moose Lake-Willow River football team deep into the postseason, and doing so while wearing his preferred cargo shorts, regardless of temperature. And while some things change — like a sophomore quarterback throwing passes out of the shotgun for the Rebels — others remain all but a foregone conclusion.

MLWR is headed back to the state tournament.

Fueled by a balanced rushing attack and a suffocating defense led by Aidan Szczyrbak and Adam Dragicevich, the top-seeded Rebels powered past No. 2 Royalton 22-6 in the Section 7AA final Thursday night in front of an overflow crowd who witnessed Northeastern Minnesota’s most consistent winner secure its 12th state berth in the past 13 years.

“This feels great,” the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Szczyrbak said. “I’ve been in this (MLWR) family since sixth grade when I was a water boy. It’s a relief. Rebel football means so much to me.”

The tone for this one was set on the Royals’ game-opening drive. On third-and-8, Royalton quarterback Gavin Suska dropped back and, as he started rolling to his left, seniors Szczyrbak and Dragicevich crashed down on him.

Suska’s night didn’t improve much. It took a turn for the better in the third quarter when he completed a long third-down pass to Zach Gottwalt out of the Royals’ end zone. But just as Royalton (9-2) was starting to come to life, having crossed midfield, Szczyrbak bulled his way into the backfield and used one arm to fling running back Wyatt Lahr for a 3-yard loss. On the next play, Szczyrbak was at it again, wrapping up a looking-to-throw Suska and driving him to the turf, which popped the ball loose. MLWR (8-2) recovered the fumble.

“To be able to put that kind of pressure on the quarterback is huge,” said Rebels coach Dave Louzek, who improved to 13-2 in section finals.

Louzek then noted Szczyrbak’s motor, which, on this night, never quit. He snuffed out the Royals’ last gasp late in the fourth quarter when, following a stunt, he came out of nowhere to steamroll a surprised Suska.

“He’s a very strong kid,” Louzek said. “Just that mentality, which he really follows in (older brother) Ezra’s footsteps. He’s so driven to be successful.”

Ezra Szczyrbak, now a senior at NCAA Division I Northern Iowa, was the News Tribune’s All-Area Player of the Year as a senior in 2013.

Tema Glushkov had an interception for the Rebels, who held Royalton to 19 total yards in the first half. Suska finished 6-of-15 passing for 105 yards.

Trent Juhl, a 1,000-yard rusher, led MLWR offensively in a rematch of last season’s 7AA title game, which the Rebels won to return to state following a one-year hiatus. They topped this section from 2006-15.

Juhl ran for 128 yards, while Anakin Oswald had 59 and Blake Juhl, Trent’s brother, added 55.

None of them, however, produced the biggest play of the night. That distinction belonged to their teammate, Bo Moffett, a special-needs senior. Moffett often gets the final carry of MLWR games, which he did Thursday. But rather than break for the sideline, he rounded the end and turned upfield. And kept right on going.

Sixty-two yards later, surrounded by Rebels, Moffett crossed the goal line for the first touchdown of his high school career.

“That was great watching Bo. It’s always fun to see him get in there,” said Trent Juhl, who was sporting a splash of blood on his right hand.

It was that kind of game — a physical struggle between two talented clubs.

To that end, Royalton made things interesting early in the fourth when 6-foot-3, 280-pound offensive lineman Josh Smieja checked in at running back and charged in for 1-yard TD to bring the Royals within 8-6. But Suska’s throwback across the field on the two-point try sailed high, leaving MLWR in front.

Trent Juhl scored from 2 yards out with less than two minutes remaining, and Blake Juhl’s conversion run was successful to make it a 10-point MLWR lead.

Szczyrbak — and Moffett — took care of things from there.

The Rebels will take on either Hawley or Barnesville in the Class AA quarterfinals Nov. 9 in Brainerd.

Royalton 0-0-0-6—6

MLWR 0-8-0-14—22

MLWR — Anakin Oswald 1 run (Trent Juhl run)

R — Josh Smieja 1 run (pass failed)

MLWR — Juhl 2 run (Blake Juhl run)

MLWR — Bo Moffett 62 run (kick failed)

SECTION 7A

Deer River 26, Blackduck 6

Entering Thursday, the Warriors were minus-3 in turnover differential through nine games (one of which was a forfeit win).

So of course top-seeded Deer River (8-2) went out and forced the Drakes (6-4) to turn the ball over a whopping seven times in the first of two section finals at Esko. Every time No. 3 Blackduck’s offense started moving, a fumble or interception would negate the momentum.

The Warriors — especially sophomore Austin Rasley — were waiting to capitalize. Rasley rushed for four touchdowns to help Deer River qualify for its first state tournament since 1999.

“In a big game like this, you never know how the ball is going to bounce,” Warriors coach Brent Schimek said. “Fortunately for us, it bounced our way.”

After the Drakes forged a 6-6 tie on Ian Frenzel’s 25-yard pass to Dylan Moen, Deer River scored the final 20 points en route to its seventh consecutive victory. The Warriors will travel to Brainerd on Nov. 10 for a Class A state quarterfinal against Mahnomen-Waubun out of Section 8A.

Blackduck 6-0-0-0—6

Deer River 6-6-8-6—26

DR — Austin Rasley 2 run (run failed)

B — Dylan Moen 25 pass from Ian Frenzel (run failed)

DR — Rasley 6 run (run failed)

DR — Rasley 12 run (Derrek Wester pass from Noah Williams)

DR — Rasley 7 run (pass failed)

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