OAK PARK HEIGHTS — Just one week after a memorable win on national television, the Stillwater football team suffered a gut-wrenching 35-34 overtime loss to Hastings on Friday in a game the Ponies would prefer to forget as soon as possible.
With Hastings leaving the Suburban East Conference at the end of the school year, this is expected to be the last meeting between these teams in the foreseeable future. The Raiders, however, enjoyed a memorable send-off after storming back from a 28-0 second-half deficit to stun the Ponies behind an epic performance by quarterback Brandon McCarthy at Pony Stadium.
The Raiders snapped an eight-game losing streak in the series, which dates back to 1895, and the loss — combined with Mounds View’s 20-7 setback against Cretin-Derham Hall, leaves East Ridge alone atop the conference standings. The Ponies (3-1 SEC, 3-1), however, still control their conference fate with games remaining against Mounds View (3-1, 3-1), Roseville (3-1, 3-1) and East Ridge (4-0, 4-0) in the next three weeks.
“Repeating as conference champions is something that is still within their grasp,” Ponies coach Beau LaBore said. “It’s something they’ve done previously after the disapointment at Cretin (last year) and taking care of business the remaining five games of the season. Almost everything they wanted to accomplish is still within their grasp and it’s about how they respond to this setback. Based on my experience with this program when we’ve experienced setbacks, it’s made us stronger and we’ve responded appropriately.”
Stillwater was in control throughout much of the game on Friday while building a 28-0 lead midway through the third quarter. Running time appeared to be a more likely conclusion than overtime, but the Raiders scored on each of their last four possessions in regulation — in front of a modest remaining crowd that had thinned out considerably after presumably assuming the outcome had already been decided.
“We had many opportunities to seal things up and be done with it, but we didn’t,” said LaBore, who admitted he’s been involved in some wild comebacks as a player and coach, but never quite like this. “I’d say this is in a class all by itself — and I hope it stays that way.”
It took contributions from both sides to produce Friday’s results as McCarthy took charge in the second half and the Ponies chipped in with some uncharacteristic miscues of their own. The senior signal-caller rushed for 182 yards and passed for 296 more — a staggering 478 yards of offense. McCarthy played a role in all five touchdowns, including a 5-yard scoring pass to Zach Wiese with three seconds remaining in regulation to cap a 99-yard drive and a 7-yard scamper in overtime.
“It was an unreal performance by him,” LaBore said. “He was poised, he was gritty and he was blue collar. He didn’t make many mistakes and he made big plays, but it’s hard to look past some of the basic mistakes we made that allowed him to run the ball effectively and buy time to be able to throw downfield.”
The Ponies, who had been flagged a league-low eight times for just 65 yards in their three previous games, were called for a whopping 14 penalties that backed them up 121 yards. Both coaches showed their displeasure with the frequency of flags — Hastings was charged with 12 infractions for 100 yards — and the breakdowns defensively from the Ponies were also out of character for a team that had allowed a total of just 13 points in three previous games.
“When it’s all said and done, Hastings did some really nice things to get back in the game, but they had a lot of help and all that stuff had to be perfectly choreographed to get to 28-28 with three seconds left,” LaBore said. “There were things we could have done better in the game and we didn’t do it. The result we have is a very nasty reality to accept and we’re going to take responsibility for it and we’re going to work our tails off to make sure we don’t do this to ourselves again. It’s not to say we won’t experience disappointment, but not under these circumstances and not doing it to ourselves.”
Even after Hastings closed within 28-20 on McCarthy’s 2-yard touchdown run with 4:16 remaining, the Ponies appeared in strong position after a failed on-side kick attempt set up Stillwater at the Raiders’ 44. Things still looked bleak for the Raiders after Stillwater downed a punt at the 1-yard line with just 3:08 remaining.
McCarthy took the Raiders downfield with a combination of running, passing and even a hard count that caused Stillwater to jump offsides on a fourth-and-four play to produce a first down near midfield. Then on fourth-and-two from the 5, McCarthy hit Wiese for the last-second touchdown and Mike Junker ran in the two-point conversion to tie the game at 28-all.
Overshadowed somewhat by McCarthy’s exploits, Stillwater running back Zach Knox racked up 250 yards — the fourth highest single game rushing total in Stillwater history — on 36 carries. He scored from six yards out on Stillwater’s second play of overtime for a 34-28 lead, but he was then stopped on the two-point conversion attempt to open the door for the Raiders, who won the coin flip and chose to go on defense first.
“That was a calculated risk and one that we were very comfortable with,” LaBore said of the decision to go for two points. “It’s unfortunate we didn’t execute, but that’s miniscule to all the other things we could have and should have done. Not getting a two-point conversion, that’s way down on the list of things we wish we could have back.”
McCarthy and the Raiders rose to the occasion again while scoring on third down to set up Jonah Harrington’s game-winning extra-point kick.
Hastings has been on the receiving end of some devastating comebacks at Stillwater’s expense in recent years, including last year’s 21-14 loss when the Ponies drove 70 yards in less than three minutes to score the go-ahead touchdown with just 12 seconds remaining to secure a share of the conference championship in the regular season finale. Even more memorable was when the Ponies overcame a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter of a 31-20 victory late in the 2005 season.
“Sometimes in this game what goes around comes around,” LaBore said. “This game is a little microcosm of why America loves football so much. In one week you have one of the greatest opportunities a high school team in Minnesota could have while playing exceptional football and beating a good opponent and you’re on a peak. Then a week later playing really good football and out of nowhere it can take a drastic turn for the worse and you’re stuck in the valley. Both scenarios are going to factor in how our players come back to work on Saturday morning and Monday afternoon. You get a real chance at seeing how young men respond to success, failure and the future.”
The Ponies were determined to avoid a letdown against Hastings following their victory in the spotlight of ESPN2 the previous week and they looked crisp while scoring on their first two possessions to build a 14-0 lead. Quarterback Trevor Tillett completed three passes on a four-play, 81-yard scoring drive — hooking up with Matt Anderson for a 31-yard touchdown just 30 seconds into the game.
Tillett completed three more passes on Stillwater’s second series and Knox rushed three times 45 yards, capped by a 6-yard gain for the first of his four touchdowns.
Stillwater extended its lead to 21-0 with two minutes remaining in the first half as Knox scored from 1 yard out to cap a 10 play drive that covered 54 yards.
“You have to feel pretty good about things when you’re up 21-0 at halftime,” LaBore said.
After forcing a quick punt by the Raiders, Stillwater continued rolling up yards as Knox rushed six times on a seven-play, 61-yard scoring drive that led to a 28-0 lead with 8:12 remaining in the third quarter.
Stillwater’s lead still appeared safe after McCarthy scored from 5 yards out with 2:36 remaining in the third quarter to cap an 85-yard drive to pull within 28-6. Then, after turning the Ponies over on downs, Hastings struck quickly as Drew Pottinger got behind the defense for an 84-yard touchdown reception from McCarthy with 8:34 remaining in the fourth to trim the deficit to 28-12.
Things really tightened up after McCarthy found Ross Dylla on passes of 54 and 18 yards to set up a 2-yard touchdown plunge by the quarterback with 4:18 remaining. Dylla then ran in the two-point conversion to make it a one-score game at 28-20.
“The good thing is we put ourselves in a great situation to succeed up 28-0 in the third quarter,” LaBore said. “We had been pretty efficient on offense and we had been inconsistent, but effective on defense. We did some things that were uncharacteristic of ourselves offensively and we didn’t finish drives. Defensively, our inconsistencies caught up with us and we gave up some big plays, which we really hadn’t done all season.”
The Raiders piled up 526 yards of offense and 26 first downs, with McCarthy running or passing on 67 of their 85 plays.
“The longer you’re around this game you find that anything can happen and sometimes the most unlikely scenarios take place and that’s what happened to us,” LaBore said. “We have to be willing to learn from this situation and I truly believe that we will. This setback will only be a setback in the win-loss column. In the end, it will make us a better team and we’ll look back at it as an opportunity to grow.”
Hastings 0 0 6 22 7 — 35
Stillwater 14 7 7 0 6 — 34
St — Matt Anderson 31 pass from Trevor Tillett (Charlie Styrbicki kick) 11:30.
St — Zach Knox 6 run (Styrbicki kick) 3:26.
St — Knox 1 run (Styrbicki kick) 2:03.
St — Knox 6 run (Styrbicki kick) 8:12.
Has — Brandon McCarthy 5 run (kick failed) 2:36.
Has — Drew Pottinger 84 pass from McCarthy (pass failed) 8:34.
Has — McCarthy 2 run (Ross Dylla run) 4:18.
Has — Zach Wiese 5 pass from McCarthy (Mike Junker run) :03.
St — Knox 6 run (run failed).
Has — McCarthy 7 run (Jonah Harrington kick).
First downs 26 17
Rushes-yards 50-230 43-255
Passing yards 296 161
Total yards 526 416
Comp-Att-Int. 14-35-0 11-22-1
Fumbles/lost 2/0 1/0
Penalties/yards 12/100 14/121
Punts/avg. 5/26.0 4/36.0
Rushing — Has: Brandon McCarthy 32-182, Shane Anderson 8-30, Mike Junker 1-9, Zach Wiese 2-6, Daryale Harris 2-2, Ross Dylla 4-1 and Brent Latuff 1-0; St: Zach Knox 36-250, Alec Hill 2-6, Brooks Carroll 3-5, team 1-0 and Trevor Tillett 1-(-6).
Passing (com-att-yds-td-int) — Has: Brandon McCarthy 14-35-296-2-0; St: Trevor Tillett 10-21-151-1-1.
Receiving — Has: Drew Pottinger 2-95, Ross Dylla 3-90, Zach Wiese 6-87, Mike Junker 1-12, Shane Anderson 1-6 and Jacob Cooper 1-6; St: Matt Anderson 5-65, Alec Hill 1-42, Brooks Carroll 1-23, Jordan Phelps 2-13, Trevor Tillett 1-10 and DJ Skie 1-8.
Kickoff returns — Has: Mike Junker 2-63 and Jacob Cooper 2-47; St: Brooks Carroll 2-31 and Caleb Fick 1-10.
Punt returns — Has: Mike Junker 1-2; St: DJ Skie 3-30.
Interceptions — Has: Drew Pottinger 1-18; St: none.
Fumble recoveries — Has: none; St: none.
Contact Stuart Groskreutz at email@example.com