OAK PARK HEIGHTS — It has been 16 years since the Stillwater football team played at the Metrodome, but the Ponies took their first step towards a long-awaited return trip on Friday after dispatching North St. Paul 41-13 in the Section 4AAAAAA quarterfinals at Pony Stadium.
The top-seeded Ponies (8-1) were not flawless, but the outcome was never seriously in doubt following a 17-point second quarter that contributed to 41 straight points after giving up an early touchdown.
As a result, Stillwater will host Rosemount (5-4) — the No. 4 seed which defeated Lakeville South 20-7 in a Section 3AAAAAA quarterfinal — on Friday for a spot in the state quarterfinals.
The Ponies and Mounds View, which defeated Forest Lake 42-21, were able to avoid the upset bug that took out two of the section’s other top seeds as No. 6 Woodbury (4-5) stopped Cretin-Derham Hall (6-3) and fifth-seeded Roseville (4-5) surprised White Bear Lake (7-3) 21-14.
A victory on Friday would advance the Ponies to the Metrodome for the first time since 1996 when they lost in the state semifinals. In the first year of the current 32-team, Class AAAAAA format, all quarterfinal games in the large-school division are now played indoors as well.
The Polars (1-8) have not defeated Stillwater since 1974 — a losing streak that now numbers 20 — jumped out to a 6-0 lead on Friday after recovering a fumble at the Ponies’ 25. Marshall Dawson, who finished with 90 yards on 17 carries, dropped a hand-off while racing outside, picked it up and ran 7 yards for the touchdown midway through the first quarter.
Stillwater answered quickly to take a 7-6 lead, however, as quarterback Nate Ricci rolled right and floated a throw back to Alex Burback for a 50-yard scoring pass with 5:53 remaining the quarter.
The Ponies extended the lead with a 34-yard field goal less than a minute into the second quarter and, after Sebastian Borges recovered a North St. Paul fumble, Ricci broke free for a 22-yard touchdown on the next play to push Stillwater in front 17-6.
Ponies coach Beau LaBore was pleased with the victory, but said he knows they will need a more complete effort going forward in the playoffs.
“It was good enough, not great,” the coach said. “We came out a little flat. The defense recovered nicely and played outstanding the rest of the way, but the offense was hit or miss. We had some nice hits, but we had a lot of misses and we have to be more consistent and we have to play harder and we have to make more plays.”
After trying unsuccessfully to throw the ball early — North St. Paul quarterback misfired on all five attempts in the first half — the Polars stayed on the ground while driving 65 yards down the Stillwater 9-yard line before Connor O’Neill blocked a 27-yard field goal attempt.
The Ponies responded with a touchdown going the other way with help from two nice gains by Zach Knox and a 22-yard pass from Ricci to Chris Rick. Knox capped the eight-play drive with an unusual 16-yard touchdown run. The sophomore appeared to be stopped for a short gain, but the officials didn’t blow the whistle and he was never ruled down, despite players from both teams assuming the play was over. Following a brief delay, Knox bolted untouched into the end zone for a surprise score and a 24-6 lead.
Stillwater limited the Polars to 196 yards in the game and North St. Paul did not help itself with five penalties for 52 yards.
Linebacker Jason Kleidosty led the Ponies on defense with eight solo tackles — including three for a loss — five assisted tackles and a forced fumble. Cody Floen totaled five solo tackles and an assist while Matt Ogren and O’Neill added four solo tackles apiece.
“Everyone has everyone else’s back, pretty much,” Kleidosty said. “We play well with each other and everyone did their jobs and that’s what we needed to do.”
Although inconsistent on offense, the Polars have hit on big plays throughout much of the season. Stillwater was able to limit those on Friday while also forcing three turnovers.
“I think our defense was very well prepared,” LaBore said. “I think they executed their game plan well and (North St. Paul’s first) score was on a short field.”
Stillwater poured it on while outscoring the Polars 17-0 during a four-minute stretch in the third quarter.
Laudet just cleared the bar for a 42-yard field goal midway through the third and Ryan Quinn hauled in a 36-yard touchdown pass from Ricci two minutes later for a 34-6 lead. Following a fumble recovery by O’Neill at the North St. Paul 11, Knox scored his second touchdown from 4 yards out for a 41-6 lead.
Knox, who has rushed for 548 yards (182.7 avg.) and six touchdowns in just three games since replacing injured Nick Anderson, finished with 119 yards on 20 carries against the Polars on a night when nine different Ponies carried the ball at least once.
Ricci completed 6 of 11 passes — to five different receivers for 134 yards and two touchdowns.
“I think we have to play better offensively,” the coach said. “I think we have to block better and I think we need to obviously take care of the ball better. It’s the first time this season we’ve had two fumbles — five fumbles on the season, but two were tonight — and I think there’s things our whole team can do better. I think we can be more intense and we have to get after it a little bit more, but offensively we’re definitely going to have to play better.”
Connor O’Neill and Sam Hodnefield have each blocked three kicks this season to help the Ponies match the team record for blocks in a season with six — joining the 1989, 2005 and 2006 teams with that record.
n Nate Ricci continues to pad his team record for punt return yards in a career after taking back two punts for 26 yards against the Polars on Friday. Ricci broke Gregg Thompson’s record of 411 yards earlier this season and now has 553 yards on 26 returns in his career. Ricci’s three punt returns for a touchdown in a season and four in a career are also school records. Ricci is also on pace to hold the school records for punt return average in a season (29.25) and career (22.7).
n Senior kicker Danny Laudet matched Luke Dewall’s school record of 11 points kicking in a game on Friday with his two field goals and five extra-point kicks. Dewall booted three field goals and two extra points during a memorable 29-28 double-overtime victory over Roseville in the 2008 season opener.
North St. Paul 6 0 0 7 — 13
Stillwater 7 17 17 0 — 41
NSP — Marshall Dawson 7 run (run failed) 6:07.
St — Alex Burback 50 pass from Nate Ricci (Danny Laudet kick) 5:53.
St — FG Laudet 34, 11:20.
St — Zach Knox 22 run (Laudet kick) 11:11.
St — Knox 16 run (Laudet kick) 4:08.
St — FG Laudet 42, 6:10.
St — Joey Quinn 36 pass from Ricci (Laudet kick) 4:02.
St — Knox 4 run (Laudet kick) 2:31.
NSP — Dawson 10 pass from Marcelo Neblett (Lars Thome kick) :36.
First downs 12 17
Rushes-yards 42-135 44-189
Passing yards 61 138
Total yards 196 327
Comp-Att-Int. 3-14-1 7-12-0
Fumbles/lost 3/2 2/2
Penalties/yards 5/52 1/15
Punts/avg. 6/33.2 1/46.0
Rushing — NSP: Marshall Dawson 17-90, Marcelo Neblett 15-34, Akeem Sirleaf 9-13 and Confidence Kpegol 1-(-2); St: Zach Knox 20-119, Nate Ricci 9-33, David Peterson 6-23, Michael Drahnak 3-4, Thomas Tran 1-4, Cal Rorabeck 1-3, Judd Lambert 1-2, Steven Nelson 1-2, team 1-0 and Trevor Tillett 1-(-1).
Passing (com-att-yds-td-int) — NSP: Marcelo Neblett 3-14-61-1-1; St: Nate Ricci 6-11-134-2-0 and Trevor Tillett 1-1-4-0-0.
Receiving — NSP: Marshall Dawson 2-26 and Alex Hemann 1-35; St: Alex Burback 1-50, Joey Quinn 1-36, Chris Rick 2-28, Matt Anderson 1-14, David Peterson 1-6 and Judd Lambert 1-5.
Kickoff returns — NSP: Marshall Dawson 4-43; St: Nate Ricci 1-15, David Peterson 1-15 and Kyle Barnm 1-6.
Punt returns — NSP: none; St: Nate Ricci 2-26.
Interceptions — NSP: none; St: Grant Moden 1-27.
Fumble recoveries — NSP: Jack O’Neil-Como 1-0 and Marquel Green; St: Sebastian Borges 1-0 and Will Raedeke 1-0.
Stillwater 41, North St. Paul 13
Roseville 21, White Bear Lake 14
Woodbury 21, Cretin-Derham Hall 14
Mounds View 42, Forest Lake 14
Friday’s cross-over games
Section 3 vs. Section 4
Woodbury (4-5) at Prior Lake (8-1)
Roseville (4-5) at Lakeville North (8-1)
Rosemount (5-4) at Stillwater (8-1)
Eastview (6-3) at Mounds View (8-1)
Section 5 vs. Section 6
Minnetonka (4-5) at Maple Grove (9-0)
Eden Prairie (7-2) at Osseo (5-3)
Blaine (5-4) at Edina (8-1)
Champlin Park (6-3) at Wayzata (7-1)