NORTH BRANCH, Minn. — Veteran Moose Lake-Willow River football coach Dave Louzek was asked if he ever remembered a game like Friday’s Class AA state tournament quarterfinal against Paynesville.
Louzek had to go back nearly two decades, and unfortunately for the Rebels, they were on the wrong end of Murphy’s law again, because everything that could go wrong did go wrong in their 56-8 loss to the Bulldogs.
Senior quarterback Grady Fuchs ran for three scores and threw for two more, and MLWR turned the ball over seven times — including six in the first half — as what started out promising for the Rebels quickly turned into a disaster, with the game on running time the entire fourth quarter.
“It was a great start to the game for us,” Louzek said. “We put a nice drive together, only for it to end with a turnover, and from there, like our offensive coordinator (Andy Dahl) said, we were stuck in quicksand. We were kind of stuck in it, then another drive and another fumble, and we kind of went off the rails from there.”
Fuchs finished 9-for-14 passing for 284 yards and had seven rushes for 46 yards. Teammate Daltin Christinsen added nine carries for 156 yards and three touchdowns
Paynesville (10-1), playing in its third straight state tournament, advances to play today’s quarterfinal winner between Blue Earth Area and Minneapolis in the state semifinals at 2 p.m. Thursday at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.
“That’ll be a little warmer,” said Christinsen, who also plays linebacker. “They came out running the football, and they were doing well with it, so I was surprised when they started throwing it.”
MLWR, playing in its 15th state tournament and 13th in the last 14 years, finished 8-3. Senior Eli Werner paced the Rebels with 16 carries for 142 yards.
After the first quarter Paynesville only led 12-0 before erupting for 20 points in the second quarter. The Bulldogs only had one turnover, and that came after one of their interceptions.
“I feel bad for Moose Lake-Willow River because that score doesn’t indicate how quality of a football program they are,” Paynesville coach Max Meagher said. “Everything went wrong for them, and we’ve been on the wrong end of that, too. This time, the turnovers happened in our favor.”
With 30-degree temperatures and a 10-mph wind, it wasn’t great for throwing the football, but trailing early, the Rebels began pressing. Plus, standout junior running back Blake Juhl hurt his toe late in the first quarter, played sparingly in the second quarter and not at all in the second half.
MLWR finished with four fumbles and three interceptions, the most turnovers Louzek remembered since the Rebels had eight in muddy conditions in a home loss to Duluth Marshall in 2000.
“It was cold for both teams,” said Louzek, who was wearing shorts as is his custom. “It just comes down to mental focus.”
Perhaps the turnover that hurt the most was Mason Olson’s interception in the second quarter after the Rebels had a touchdown called back due to a personal foul.
“We talked about it, and November football just isn’t meant for that kind of football,” Louzek said in regard to passing offenses. “We dug ourselves a hole and kind of got into that mindset that we had to score quick and try to get back in the game. Quicksand.”
Levi Bast, a 6-foot-2 senior wide receiver, had touchdown receptions of 51 and 54 yards and could be a tough player to stop in U.S. Bank Stadium. The Bulldogs feature 16 seniors and a nice balanced attack that could be especially tough to be stopped inside.
“You have to be able to do everything,” Meagher said. “The last couple of games, and even this one, teams have been loading the box trying to stop the run, but we’ve been able to take advantage of it.”
The silver lining here, the good news for MLWR is the Rebels only had eight seniors, including only three starters, so they could be back again next year.
“We’ll use this game as motivation for next year,” Louzek said. “We had a great group of seniors. They set the foundation. The top goals for our program is to have fun and become a family, and this group of seniors set that foundation. This was one of the funnest teams I’ve ever been around, on and off the field, including the ninth graders. Everyone was part of the team.”
P — Daltin Christinsen 5 run (pass failed)
P — Grady Fuchs 19 run (pass failed)
P — Levi Bast 51 pass from Fuchs (Caden Spanier pass from Fuchs)
P — Fuchs 5 run (pass failed)
P — Fuchs 2 run (pass failed)
P — Christinsen 25 run (Fuchs run)
P — Bast 54 pass from Fuchs (Spanier pass from Fuchs)
P — Christinsen 39 run (Bast pass from Fuchs)
MLWR — Jordan Fjosne 5 run (Eli Werner run)