HASTINGS — Years from now when Stillwater football fans bring up that memorable comeback victory at Hastings to win the Suburban East Conference championship, they will have to specify which one they’re talking about.
With a share of the conference championship hanging in the balance, Stillwater drove 70 yards in less than three minutes to overtake the plucky Raiders 21-14 on Wednesday night in the regular season finale at McNamara Stadium.
It wasn’t as large a comeback as 2005 when the Ponies scored 28 points in less than six minutes in the fourth quarter to overcome a 17-point deficit, but Wednesday’s rally was impressive nonetheless.
The victory earned the Ponies (7-1 SEC, 7-1) a share of the conference title with Mounds View (7-1, 7-1), a 40-0 winner over Park on Wednesday. Cretin-Derham Hall (6-2, 6-2), which handed Stillwater its only loss this season, tied White Bear Lake (6-2, 6-2) for third place.
“It feels great to be conference champs, which is something you don’t get to experience very often,” senior quarterback Nate Ricci said. “I’m glad to share it with a great bunch of guys.”
Stillwater, which defeated the Mustangs 17-14 on Sept. 28, received the No. 1 seed for the Section 4AAAAAA tournament when pairings were announced on Thursday morning. The Ponies will host North St. Paul in the quarterfinals on Oct. 26. Mounds View received the No. 2 seed while Cretin-Derham Hall and White Bear Lake were seeded third and fourth.
The night also provided a memorable individual effort for sophomore running back Zach Knox, who racked up 280 yards on 48 carries — shattering the Jesse George’s previous team record of 38 rushing attempts against Park in 2008. His rushing total accounted for 78 percent of Stillwater’s yards from scrimmage and it was also the second highest in school history, trailing only the 290-yard performance on just 17 carries — a whopping 17.1 avg. — by Pat Juhl against White Bear Mariner in 1979.
At 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds, Knox was playing sophomore football two weeks ago and didn’t even step on the field for varsity until gaining 149 yards in last week’s victory over Roseville.
“Knox came up with some huge runs and our O-line played a great game, and on that last drive especially, just made some great holes for Knox,” Ricci said. “He’s a hell of a player, a little bit undersized, but he makes up for it with a lot of heart and a lot of grit. He follows the O-line well and you have to give a lot of credit to them. He’s a sophomore and it’s a little bit unexpected for him to step up this well, but he did a great job today.”
Stillwater’s 77 plays from scrimmage broke the previous school record of 76 set in a victory over Roseville in 2009.
The Ponies entrusted Knox and the offensive line with moving the chains on that winning drive in the fourth quarter, which began with just 2:55 remaining from the Stillwater 30-yard line.
In a game that produced few points until the last five minutes of the game, Stillwater’s Grant Moden intercepted a pass and returned it 31 yards for a touchdown to give the Ponies a 13-6 with 4:21 remaining. It was a huge shift in momentum after Danny Laudet’s 24-yard field goal attempt was blocked just seconds earlier.
Hastings responded quickly, however, as quarterback Alex Weise connected with Ross Dylia for a 61-yard touchdown pass and then found Drew Pottinger for the two-point conversion to give the Raiders a 14-13 lead with less than three minutes on the clock.
“My heart sank a little bit when they scored that touchdown,” Ricci said. “For the regular season to end like that wasn’t the way I had planned out. We knew what we needed to do and we’ve been driving the ball well all game and coach (Beau LaBore) just really emphasized that we needed to finish the drive once we got down there and we did exactly that.”
Stillwater did not throw a pass on the game-clinching scoring drive that featured a steady diet of Knox, who carried on all 11 plays. The Ponies did not even face a third down until Knox converted the winning touchdown on third-and-goal from the 1-yard line with just 12 seconds remaining.
Ricci, who was a key member of Stillwater’s last conference title team as a sophomore in 2010, appreciates the challenge of stepping into the varsity pressure cooker as a sophomore.
“That just shows a lot about him and his character and to be able to step up like that is huge,” Ricci said. “I played as a sophomore, but I didn’t carry the ball (48) times. We’re just looking for great things from him in the future.”
Knox gained 186 of his yards in the second half and took the ball on 20 of Stillwater’s last 22 plays from scrimmage.
The Ponies found themselves in Hastings territory regularly throughout the game, but still trailed 6-3 entering the fourth quarter. Laudet kicked a 22-yard field goal midway through the opening quarter, but the Ponies were also intercepted on another promising drive and were stopped on fourth-and-1 from the five with four minutes remaining in the first half.
The Ponies evened the score at 6-all on Laudet’s second field goal, this one from 31 yards out on the first play of the fourth.
The conference championship is Stillwater’s 22nd overall, with 18 coming since 1975. It also marks the program’s fifth title in the 12-year history of the Suburban East Conference.
Stillwater’s last two league titles were followed up with disappointing losses in the section playoffs, something Ricci does not want to see repeated as the Ponies seek their first trip to the state tournament since 2006.
“After the Cretin game they said we control our own destiny and if we win out we’ve got it, and that’s exactly what we strived to do and that’s what we did,” Ricci said. “Every week in practice we just focused on trying to win the game. We’re we’re not going to take any game for granted. I know we’re probably going to play a low seed the first game in the playoffs, but every game means a lot to us and we’re just going to take it week by week and hopefully get a win next week.”
Stillwater 3 0 0 18 — 21
Hastings 0 6 0 8 — 14
St — FG Danny Laudet 22, 7:14.
Has — Alex Weise 19 run (kick failed) :33.
St — FG Laudet 31, 11:56.
St — Grand Moden 31 interception return (Laudet kick) 4:21.
Has — Ross Dylia 61 pass from Weise (Drew Pottinger pass from Weise) 3:00.
St — Zach Knox 1 run (Joey Quinn pass from Nate Ricci) :12.
First downs 24 14
Rushes-yards 62-320 18-97
Passing yards 43 176
Total yards 363 273
Comp-Att-Int. 6-15-1 10-25-1
Fumbles/lost 1/0 1/0
Penalties/yards 6/54 8/53
Punts/avg. 2/41.0 5/36.2
Rushing — St: Zach Knox 48-280, Nate Ricci 13-38 and David Peterson 1-1; Has: Brandon McCarthy 12-80 and Alex Wiese 6-17.
Passing (com-att-yds-td-int) — St: Nate Ricci 6-15-43-0-1; Has: Alex Weise 10-25-176-1-1.
Receiving — St: Chris Rick 2-21, David Peterson 2-10, Alex Burback 1-8 and Matt Anderson 1-4; Has: Zach Weise 5-86, Ross Dylia 2-66 and Drew Pottinger 2-28.
Kickoff returns — St: Grand Moden 2-32 and Caleb Fick 1-7; Has: Ross Dylia 1-26 and Zach Weise 1-24.
Punt returns — St: Nate Ricci 1-7; Has: none.
Interceptions — St: Grand Moden 1-31; Has: Colin Shoen 1-15.
Fumble recoveries — St: none; Has: none.
W L W L
Stillwater 7 1 7 1
Mounds View 7 1 7 1
C-D Hall 6 2 6 2
White Bear Lake 6 2 6 2
East Ridge 4 4 4 4
Woodbury 3 5 3 5
Roseville 3 5 3 5 Hastings 3 5 3 5
Park 1 7 1 7
Forest Lake 0 8 0 8
Week 8 results
Stillwater 21, Hastings 14
Mounds View 40, Park 0
White Bear Lake 42, East Ridge 7
C-D Hall 49, Roseville 14
Woodbury 54, Forest Lake 7
Quarterfinals on Oct. 26
#8 North St. Paul at #1 Stillwater
#5 Roseville at #4 WB Lake
#6 Woodbury at #3 C-D Hall
#7 Forest Lake at #2 M. View