OAK PARK HEIGHTS — So much for dipping your toe in the water.
Sophomore running back Zach Knox made his varsity debut and a big splash at the same time while helping the Stillwater football team keep its Suburban East Conference titles hopes alive with a 28-19 victory over Roseville on Friday at Pony Stadium.
Knox rushed 31 times for 149 yards and two touchdowns and the Ponies (6-1 SEC, 6-1) put on yet another exemplary special teams demonstration to win its fourth straight game to keep pace with fellow conference front-runner Mounds View (6-1, 6-1), a 61-0 winner over Forest Lake.
Stillwater can wrap up a share of its third conference title in four years with a victory at Hastings (3-4, 3-4) on Wednesday. Mounds View, meanwhile, hosts Park (1-6, 1-6) in its regular season finale.
Knox’s varsity appearance became necessary following leading rusher Nick Anderson’s season-ending elbow injury two weeks ago.
“I’m just really happy that I could have this chance, but it’s not exactly under the best circumstances,” said Knox, who may well have set a school record for most rushing yards while wearing a number in the 90s (No. 95). “He’s a great halfback and I feel really bad for (Anderson), but we have to stay together as a team and we pulled it off, that’s what matters.”
The Ponies also received another gutty effort from versatile quarterback Nate Ricci, who continues to make big plays despite a lingering ankle injury. For the second week in a row, Ricci scored a touchdown the first time he touched the ball, this time returning a punt 59 yards to give the Ponies a 7-0 lead 65 seconds into the game.
A week earlier he returned the opening kick-off for a touchdown and followed that up with a punt return touchdown against East Ridge.
“His speed and vision really showed on that one, but the best part about it is he had a lot of work done for him on that one,” Stillwater coach Beau LaBore said. “Our guys on punt and kick-off return are hot and they understand what we’re trying to accomplish and are getting just a little better at it each week and I think Nate’s ability gives them some motivation to get a little better because they know that big things can happen.”
Ricci now has three punt return touchdowns this season and a school record four in his career, pulling away from Gregg Thompson, Aaron Runk and Richie Juelich, who each ran back three.
“We spend a lot of time and we work very hard on special teams,” LaBore said. “It’s not so simple to say that Nate is a great athlete, we work very hard on special teams and it takes 11 guys — but good plays can become great plays and great plays are scores when you’ve got a guy back there like that. It’s not an accident and it’s firmly embedded in every day of our practice plans.”
The fast start and special teams success provides a nice boost for the Ponies, who have outgained just two of their seven opponents this season. Roseville held a slight 322-309 advantage in yards from scrimmage on Friday, but that total is more than 60 yards below its season average.
The Raiders responded to the early deficit with an 11-play, 73-yard drive that ended with talented junior quarterback Jacques Perra finding Taylor Barron over the middle on a 22-yard touchdown pass to pull even at 7-all.
A nice kick-off return by Grant Moden started Stillwater’s ensuing drive at midfield and the combination of Ricci and Knox — along with a 7-yard reception by David Peterson — helped the Ponies regain a 14-7 lead. Knox gained 9 and 7 yards on his first two carries and Ricci did the rest while rushing three times for 26 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown around the right side.
After the Ponies rushed for just 32 yards and gained only 127 total against East Ridge the previous week, Knox provided a much-needed complement to Ricci with Anderson on the shelf.
“I was very nervous, but when I eventually got in the game it got a lot better,” Knox admitted. “It was a lot faster and they hit harder, I’ll tell you that, but it was really fun and I was so happy I could be out here. My teammates helped me through it and whenever I’d make mistakes they wouldn’t rip on me, they picked me up and that’s what really kept me going.”
Stillwater threatened to increase its lead before halftime, but Ricci was stopped short on fourth-and-goal from the 1 and Danny Laudet also narrowly missed a 32-yard field goal attempt with 3:36 remaining in the half.
The Raiders took advantage going the other way and Matthew Peckham scored a rushing touchdown from 8 yards out with 1:03 left in the first half to pull within 14-13 after the extra-point kick sailed wide.
“It’s twice we’ve been stuffed on the 1-yard line and that’s very disappointing,” LaBore said. “All of those plays we had called down there we feel confident about those plays and when we send out that jumbo unit we expect to get yards, not a yard. We left some points on the field, there’s no doubt about it, and we definitely left some third downs on the field, but sometimes that was a credit to them and sometimes a credit to their quarterback that has such a great knack for extending plays.
“This one didn’t need to be as close as it was, and we need to find a way to execute down the stretch to avoid being in that situation. We’ve got to kind of execute a little killer instinct there. This is a game that could have blown a lot of opportunities for us, so we need to execute in the red zone.”
Knox did not slow down in the second half, rushing four times for 33 yards, and Ricci connected with Alex Burback for 29 yards to help orchestrate a 62-yard scoring drive to start the second half. Knox finished the drive with an 18-yard scamper for his first varsity touchdown.
The Raiders thwarted Stillwater’s fake field goal attempt midway through the third quarter and Roseville answered with its best series of the night. Peckham carried four times for 52 yards — accounting for nearly half of his nightly total (112) — on the drive, which was capped by a 20-yard scamper to pull within 21-19. Perra was stopped on the two-point conversion attempt.
Clinging to a two-point lead in the fourth quarter, Knox coughed up a fumble that Roseville recovered at its own 31. With help from a 43-yard pass from Perra to Logan Brown, the Raiders set themselves up for a 38-yard field goal attempt to take the lead. Stillwater’s special teams came through again, however, as senior linebacker Sam Hodnefield blocked the kick and Aaron Romportl returned it to the Roseville 33.
Showing faith in the youngster, the Ponies went right back to Knox and he powered for 29 yards on five carries — including a 7-yard touchdown with 2:47 remaining — to help Stillwater extend its lead to 28-19.
Knox, who gained 83 of his 149 yards after halftime, appreciated the strong show of support after the fumble.
“I ended up fumbling once, but when I got back to the sidelines everybody was like, ‘it’s alright, keep going’ and they weren’t mad at me and just kept me going throughout,” Knox said. “I didn’t realize I had that many (carries), but it was great blocks up on the line that helped me be able to get through. I really owe it all to the line.”
Nor did the coach anticipate 30-plus carries in his first varsity game.
“We would prefer that he didn’t have to carry it 31 times, even 25 or 20 times, but he’s the guy that we needed to put back there and he was very focused throughout the practice week,” LaBore said. “He is very coachable and he can obviously run with the football. We were not so much surprised, but satisfied, and we had confidence that he was going to be OK. He could have been back there last week, but we just didn’t want to rush it and so we were patient with it.”
Matt Ogren, who intercepted Perra in the final seconds to prevent a late scoring drive, also forced a fumble and finished with five solo tackles and two assisted tackles for the Ponies. Hodnefield joined Ogren with 20 defensive points after making six total tackles to go along with the blocked kick and a forced fumble. Connor O’Neill led the Ponies with six solo tackles.
It’s a little early for Halloween, but the Ponies dipped into their bag of trick plays twice on Friday. Although the fake field goal attempt was snuffed out, offensive guard Derrick Thingvold found quarterback Nate Ricci for nice completion on the first play of the second quarter on a drive that eventually stalled just inches from the goal line.
The play started with Ricci tossing a pitch to Knox on the left side where he drew the defense before turning throwing a pass backwards to Thingvold, who then fired a pass down the field to Ricci for a 28-yard gain down to the Roseville 22.
The 6-foot-7, 240-pound Thingvold has played quarterback in the past and was a tight end last season, but the Ponies needed his size on the interior of the line this year and Friday’s trick play was primarily set up to reward the senior for his willingness to take on the challenges of a new — and less glamorous — position.
“We know he can catch the ball and we know he can throw the ball and we get a pretty good reaction when we run our bunch play to the sweep,” LaBore said. “It might have been a big one had Nate not got caught in the wash, but in the end Derrick stuck with it and I’m glad that he threw it up for grabs. It was a little bit of razzle-dazzle, but it’s fun and it keeps the defense honest — and our offensive lineman has an arm, let’s use it.”
n The Ponies unveiled black uniforms for Friday’s final regular season home game, which also served as Senior Night. Stillwater donned black pants for its homecoming victory over Forest Lake, but went all black for Roseville.
“The opportunity presented itself as we were buying the other uniforms in bulk — it wasn’t a need, but a little more of a wish list thing — and you know football and in the pros and college game it finds its way down to the high school game,” LaBore said. “It’s kind of a gesture to our senior class because this is a little bit different night for those guys and it’s a special night. It’s a little bit of a new tradition and it’s a nice way to recognize them for their efforts, their commitment and their example for Stillwater football.
“There is a lot of tradition here at Stillwater, particularly in football, and I’ve perpetuated many traditions — some that go back half a century, some that go back to the 60s, 70s and 80s and some that go back half a decade. But we’ve also tried to begin and create some new traditions and this was something that the players were pretty excited about and something that we felt we could pull off — and a new tradition in the context of a very traditional school.”
Roseville 7 6 6 0 — 19
Stillwater 14 7 0 7 — 28
St — Nate Ricci 59 punt return (Danny Laudet kick) 10:55.
Ros — Taylor Barron 22 pass from Jacques Perra (Sam Loveland kick) 6:04.
St — Ricci 8 run (Laudet kick) 2:22.
Ros — Matthew Peckham 8 run (kick failed) 1:03.
St — Zach Knox 18 run (Laudet kick) 10:09.
Ros — Peckham 20 run (run failed) 3:47.
St — Knox 7 run (Laudet kick) 2:47.
First downs 20 19
Rushes-yards 27-137 44-207
Passing yards 185 102
Total yards 322 309
Comp-Att-Int. 14-31-1 7-15-0
Fumbles/lost 2/0 1/1
Penalties/yards 4/20 9/63
Punts/avg. 5/30.0 1/53.0
Rushing — Ros: Matthew Peckham 13-112, Tommy Arcand 4-19, Jacques Perra 8-3 and Jabari Prim 2-3; St: Zach Knox 31-149, Nate Ricci 10-58, Trevor Tillett 1-2, David Peterson 1-0 and team 1-0.
Passing (com-att-yds-td-int) — Ros: Jacques Perra 14-31-185-1-1; St: Nate Ricci 6-13-74-0-0, Derrick Thingvold 1-1-28-0-0 and Trevor Tillett 0-1-0-0-0.
Receiving — Ros: Logan Brown 4-67, Tommy Arcand 4-53, Taylor Barron 1-22, Jabari Prim 1-18, Conor Perra 1-11, Sebastian Yang 1-9 and Matthew Peckham 2-5; St: Alex Burback 2-45, Nate Ricci 1-28, David Peterson 2-13, Joey Quinn 1-11 and Matt Anderson 1-5.
Kickoff returns — Ros: Sebastian Yang 2-45, Tommy Arcand 1-14 and Taylor Barron 1-10; St: Grant Moden 2-31 and Caleb Fick 1-5.
Punt returns — Ros: none; St: Nate Ricci 2-69.
Interceptions — Ros: none; St: Nick Ogren 1-13.
Fumble recoveries — Ros: Ben Teske 1-0; St: none.