OAK PARK HEIGHTS — The Stillwater football team faced several obstacles before undefeated and fourth-ranked Mounds View even stepped off the bus for Friday’s Suburban East Conference showdown at Pony Stadium.
The Ponies overcame an early deficit to grind out a 17-14 victory and move into a three-way tie for first place in the conference standings against a team that has dished up plenty of disappointment for Stillwater the past six years. Mounds View (4-1 SEC, 4-1), which had won nine of its previous 10 games against the Ponies (4-1, 4-1) before Friday’s nail-biter, has ended Stillwater’s season in the section playoffs each of the past four years.
“It’s a great feeling,” said senior running back Nick Anderson, who rushed 37 times for 208 yards and one touchdown — accounting for more than two-thirds of Stillwater’s total yards (291). “I mean, we haven’t beaten them in (five) games and it just makes it that much better and now we have a chance at the conference. It was a pretty tough game, two big powerhouses going at it. This was huge, a big confidence booster and it shows us how good we can be.”
Now firmly back in the conference title chase, Stillwater’s prospects appeared grim prior to the game with versatile quarterback Nate Ricci and starting offensive linemen Derrick Thingvold and Danny Buege sidelined by injuries. The Ponies, however, rallied behind their workhorse Anderson and senior kicker Danny Laudet — who calmly drilled a 36-yard field goal with 54 seconds remaining to provide the difference as Stillwater snapped a five-game losing streak against the Mustangs.
“Based on the practice week we were in great shape and I thought that we had a nice opportunity, but I’d be lying through my teeth if I wasn’t concerned with the fact that we were starting this game without two senior offensive linemen and our best offensive football player the past two years,” Ponies coach Beau LaBore said.
Junior quarterback Trevor Tillett guided the offense with a steady diet of Anderson, who ran hard and racked up tough yards all night behind newly installed starters on the line Anders Sandstrom (right guard) and Nick Brevitz (right tackle). The injuries also necessitated Ryan Peltier moving to left guard on a line anchored by Austin Conery at center and including Pete Palacek at tackle.
“Without Ricci there we had to stick to the game plan, which was to run the football,” LaBore said. “Nick Anderson was going to play the role where we were going to give you the ball and you’d have to make something happen and he ran as hard and focused and determined as he ever has — and he sustained it for four quarters. The offensive line opened up some creases and Nick found them.”
It was those efforts up front that Mounds View coach Jim Galvin said impacted the outcome of the game. Anderson, whose 37 attempts was just one shy of Jesse George’s team record of 38 set in 2008, and the Ponies piled up those yards against the top defense in the conference. Mounds View entered the game allowing fewer than 10 points and 228 yards per game.
“We prepared for playing (Ricci) and what he does when he’s under center, in shotgun, and what they do,” Galvin said. “When he came and didn’t play it was fine, but they just played a little better up front. The way they ran the ball tonight, that was beautiful the way they ran the football.”
Stillwater’s defense also did its part after a sluggish start. The Mustangs gained first downs on five of their first seven plays from scrimmage while marching 80 yards for a touchdown on the first series of the game, capped by Matt Harding’s 1-yard scoring plunge on fourth down for a 7-0 lead.
After trading interceptions, Mounds View increased its lead to 14-0 on TJ Horn’s 4-yard touchdown run with 2:22 remaining in the first quarter. That second score was set up by a 46-yard pass from Mitch Fredrickson to Jeremy Redmond.
“We made it clear to our guys that there is going to be peaks and valleys in a game with Mounds View and momentum is going to shift, but we need a response when they’ve got the momentum and we can’t be surprised that they’re going to make some plays, too, when we’ve got momentum,” LaBore said. “Fourteen-to-nothing in the first quarter was about as bad of a situation as you could imagine, and ordinarily that would be the time we would rely heavily on Ricci to pull us out.”
Anderson racked up 168 of his yards on 24 carries in the first half and also took a beating during the game. He was taken to the locker room on a cart at halftime and also suffered an elbow injury that kept him on the sideline for the final series as Stillwater ran into the pile three times to set up the game-winning field goal.
“Our captains and seniors stepped up and the people who filled in for other players that were out stepped up,” Anderson said. “We just kept pounding the ball and (Tillett) kept throwing it and putting points on the board.”
Needing to regroup after Mounds View’s second touchdown, Anderson gained all 85 of Stillwater’s yards on the ensuing six-play scoring drive. Following a 52-yard scamper down the 1-yard line, Anderson scored on the first play of the second quarter to pull within 14-7.
The Ponies then pulled even at 14-all on their next possession as Tillett scored on a 1-yard quarterback sneak with 7:37 remaining in the first half. In addition to Anderson on the ground, Tillett hooked up with Alex Burback for a 14-yard completion on third-and-11 to keep the drive going and Anderson connected with Chris Rick on a 21-yard halfback pass to give the Ponies first down on the Mounds View 15.
Stillwater’s offense was moving the ball and the defense also stood tall after the first quarter. Senior linebacker Sam Hodnefield secured his second interception of the game midway through the second quarter — a superb play where he tipped the ball in the air and made a diving catch just before it hit the ground — at the Mounds View 35.
The Ponies advanced to the 1-yard line before Mounds View stuffed Anderson on third and fourth down with less than three minutes remaining to preserve the tie.
“I don’t know why we couldn’t sustain a drive after that, I have no idea,” Galvin said. “They got their running game going and we kind of lost momentum there and never did regain it. They were bigger and more physical than we were tonight. They pushed us around a little bit and we hung tough as long as we could.”
Mounds View’s efforts on offense were not helped when starting quarterback Mitch Fredrickson was knocked out of the game after getting sandwiched by Ponies linebacker Cody Floen and defensive lineman Marvin Lerol midway through the third quarter.
Before converting the game-winner in the final minute, Laudet missed field goals of 51 and 54 yards in the second half. Mounds View also stalled on fourth-and-1 at the Stillwater 22 in the third quarter when Matt Ogren tripped up Horn behind the line of scrimmage for another key stop.
Not including two on-side kick attempts, Laudet has driven 14 of 21 kicks for touchbacks and ranks second in the conference in punting with a 36.9 average, but he had missed each of his first five field goal attempts prior to Friday’s game-winner.
“I was really nervous, not for myself, but for my teammates,” said Laudet, who grew up in France and previously played soccer before trying American football for the first time this fall. “I knew I could count on my snapper and holder because they’ve been doing a great job to get the ball there and all I had to do is kick if. It’s really simple for me to do that, I do it every day.”
The attempt was set up by the last of Mounds View’s four turnovers as Ogren recovered a fumble at the 22 with just 1:44 remaining. Three conservative running plays in the middle of the field by Clay Roth set the stage for Laudet’s heroics.
Laudet’s five previous misses should include an asterisk when you consider three of the attempts were from beyond 51 yards and only one — a 42-yard try against Cretin-Derham Hall — was shorter than Joe Stormont’s existing school record of 47 yards set against Woodbury in 2006.
“I want the long ones, because they’re fun and nobody expects you to kick that long,” Laudet said. “When I missed that first one, I was mad at myself for letting the team down and I slipped on my second one so that was frustrating. The last one I just knew had to go in because I just knew I couldn’t let my holder and snapper down again.”
He didn’t — and it remained the coup de grâce after a Mounds View drive in the final seconds resulted in Connor O’Neill blocking a 43-yard field goal attempt by Alec Tolson as time expired.
“This is awesome,” Laudet said. “The guys out there are just super supportive of me and they’ve adopted me and it’s a huge family and they let me in. It’s a great feeling.”
The game might have been decided by a kick in the final minute, but LaBore suggested the team’s focus and performance all week in practice might have been the biggest factor in Friday’s success.
“I felt like tonight was all going to depend on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday,” the coach said. “We had a pretty poor week of practice during the Cretin week and it was poor to start for Forest Lake, although it finished better. But this week, offensively and defensively our guys were very focused and they bought into the next man up. To quote (University of Minnesota coach) Jerry Kill, the next man up was going to step in and fill the role of the guys that were out.
“Mounds View is a great program and they put together a great team each and every year. You won’t get away without playing four quarters and you won’t get away if you make too many mistakes, so it’s always going to be tough to beat a Mounds View team. I think Mounds View is a special team for Stillwater and it’s no doubt a special win because we have had so much difficulty with them the past decade or so.”
Mounds View 14 0 0 0 — 14
Stillwater 0 14 0 3 — 17
MV — Matt Harding 1 run (Alec Tolson kick) 7:09.
MV — TJ Horn 4 run (Tolson kick) 2:22.
St — Nick Anderson 1 run (Danny Laudet kick) 11:57.
St — Trevor Tillett 1 run (Laudet kick) 7:37.
St — FG Laudet 36, :54.
First downs 16 14
Rushes-yards 40-143 46-213
Passing yards 150 78
Total yards 293 291
Comp-Att-Int. 10-23-3 5-13-1
Fumbles/lost 2/1 0/0
Penalties/yards 0/0 3/15
Punts/avg. 3/37.0 4/36.75
Rushing — MV: Austin Smestad 8-55, TJ Horn 13-40, Jeremy Redmond 8-28, Matt Harding 2-9, Sola Olateju 3-8, Mitch Fredrickson 2-3 and Matt Hunt 3-0; St: Nick Anderson 37-208, Clay Roth 3-5, David Peterson 1-2 and Trevor Tillett 1-1.
Passing (com-att-yds-td-int) — MV: Mitch Fredrickson 6-11-110-0-2 and Alec Tolson 4-12-40-0-1; St: Trevor Tillett 4-12-57-0-1 and Nick Anderson 1-1-21-0-0.
Receiving — MV: Max Knutson 6-67, Jeremy Redmond 2-61 and Austin Smestad 2-22; St: Joey Quinn 2-37, Chris Rick 2-27 and Alex Burback 1-14.
Kickoff returns — MV: Max Knutson 1-38; St: Chris Rick 1-21 and Nick Anderson 1-12.
Punt returns — MV: Max Knutson 1-22 and Ethan DeCaster 1-7; St: none.
Interceptions — MV: Andrew Thomas 1; St: Sam Hodnefield 2-0 and Lowell Schmoekel 1-12.
Fumble recoveries — MV: none; St: Matt Ogren 1-0.