Semifinal statement: Early lead propels Rockets to state 9-Man finalPublished 10:44am Friday, November 15, 2013
MINNEAPOLIS — A lone assistant from the Ely football team walked the quiet depths of the Metrodome to the Underwood locker room after the Rockets’ knockout victory over the Timberwolves Thursday in the state 9-Man semifinals. He congratulated his opponent on the team’s behalf, complimented them on how hard they played and, in an emphatic tone, told them exactly what they’ve been trying to convince opponents of all year long: that they’re an excellent football team.
Underwood added a few more names to their list of believers after earning its sixth straight victory and second win in a row against ranked opponents with its 34-20 victory over No. 6 (9-Man) Ely.
“We were pumped up and ready to go,” Rocket head coach Chuck Ross said following the game. “Knowing that they were this close, we came right out and stuck it to them.”
That early energy paid off. Ross described the Rockets as a “second half” team after its quarterfinal victory over Nicollet, commenting on what was its third straight game overcoming either a tie or deficit at halftime.
Against the Timberwolves, however, the Rockets took a 21-7 lead into the locker room at the midway point. Most of its points came off of running back Noah Thompson’s 116 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. He finished the game with 178 yards on 30 carries and three touchdowns.
Special teams also played a major role in Underwood’s first half lead. Adam Creek set up one score in the second quarter with a long punt return and the Rockets converted an Ely fumble into points after the Timberwolves lost the ball on a kickoff at their own 18 yard-line.
With the lead, the Rockets were in a position it hadn’t been used to for most of the playoffs. But Underwood relied on its old game plan to grind out the win.
“We always feel when we’re ahead we’re going to be able to keep the ball on the ground and run some clock out,” Ross said. “When we get a lead in the second half we’re going to keep wearing you out and keep running the Clock. Fortunately, we were able to do that on the last few drives.”
But the Timberwolves didn’t make it easy. Running back Louis Gerzin broke a 75-yard touchdown and cut the Rocket’s lead to 21-14 in the third quarter. A dejected Ely squad suddenly showed some energy on the field and on the sideline.
Thompson scored again in the third, but sat out much of the half with a bruise on his elbow. Creek also needed attention after cramping in his leg. On the ensuing snap after he was taken out of the game, the Rockets mishandled the center to quarterback exchange and gave the ball to the Timberwolves. Ely reached the red zone, but the Rocket defense stood strong and Creek was back under center.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, Ely drove the field and quarterback Sean Jordan hit Michael Lah for a 15-yard touchdown pass. The Rockets answered with their own drive, but Ely took the ball away off an interception with five minutes to go.
The Rockets made the stop before Ely could reach midfield, however, and began to slowly wind down the final minutes. Underwood insured victory with a 13-yard touchdown from Dylan Kalenze off the option pitch from Creek.
“He came up huge today and had some fantastic runs,” Ross said of Creek’s performance. “For the most part he ran the option pretty well. That last touchdown, I think he gave us all some grey hairs because we really didn’t want him to pitch it, but he did and, hey, it was another big play by a senior.”
Creek finished with 111 yards on 14 carries. Matt Biegler also had 50 yards and a touchdown in the 373-yard performance by the Rocket offense.
Biegler led the defense with eight tackles. Tyler Aune had seven and Creek finished with 6.5. Seniors LeRoy Hauge and Max Kollar had 5.5 and five, respectively.
The Rockets head to the Prep Bowl final at 10 a.m. on Friday, November 29 in the Metrodome. It will face the winner between Kittson County Central and Grand Meadow.
The Rockets are the only team with more than one loss left in the playoffs. Underwood revenged two of those losses in the section playoffs despite having the underdog role in each game leading up to the championship. Ross is pleased with his team’s continued improvement and said they can prove just how good they are in the championship.
“Early in the season I thought we were going to have a lot of work to do after we took a couple tough losses,” Ross said. “But they’re getting better every single game at the right part of the year and I have a lot of confidence that they’re going to win the next game.”