Finishing in the final four


by Gabe Licht
Mixed emotions filled the Maple Lake Irish locker room following their 50-24 loss to the Minneota/Lincoln HI Vikings in the Minnesota State High School League Football Class AA Semifinals.
“It’s always tough in the locker room when you lose the last game, especially for seniors because they know they’re done unless they play college football,” coach Tim Knudsen said. “… On the other hand, we know they feel pretty good having been the first Maple Lake team to reach the final four. That’s a great feeling.” 
Knudsen suggested that feeling could be passed down to future generations.
“When they have kids and they go through Maple Lake and see their dad’s picture on the wall and it says ‘semifinal football,’ that’s the reward about it,” Knudsen said.
Maple Lake got off to a promising start, despite some hiccups. After holding the Vikings to three yards on the opening possession, the Irish put together nine plays for 42 yards, ending with a 34-yard field goal from Charlie Stejskal for a 3-0 lead.
“The only problem was we had two mental mistakes where we lined up off sides and had a motion penalty,” Knudsen said. 
Stejskal went back to work with a 40-yard kickoff and made the touchdown-saving tackle on the 20-yard line. With a short field, the Vikings took barely a minute to score on three plays for a 7-3 lead.
Two plays later, it was the Irish celebrating in the end zone, as Cal Redemske rushed for a 60-yard touchdown. A botched hold kept the Irish from a successful point-after-touchdown kick, meaning they had to settle for a 9-7 lead.
To finish the first quarter, the Vikings strung together 10 plays for a 14-9 lead.
Early in the second quarter, the Vikings ate up another 50 yards and increased their lead to 21-9.
Dusty Strub received the kickoff and took it 85 yards until he found pay dirt, to cut the Vikings’ lead to 21-16 with the help of a successful Stejskal PAT.
“That gave us a little spark,” Knudsen said.
His team attempted to fan that spark into a flame of momentum with an on-side kick, which they successfully recovered. However, that momentum was short-lived, as a fumble returned the ball to Minneota/Lincoln HI.
“That was a back-breaker,” Knudsen said. “If we would’ve scored a touchdown or field goal, that would have helped us out.”
Not only were the Irish unable to score, but they gave the Vikings a short field, just 37 yards from the end zone. Seven plays later, they had increased the lead to 28-16.
With 3:08 remaining, the Irish began the final drive of the first half. In 13 plays, they made their way to the Vikings’ 34-yard line, where Stejskal lined up for a 51-yard field goal as time expired.
“He’s kicked 50-yarders in practice,” Knudsen said. “He had the distance for it, but it was just wide left.”
Going into halftime down 12 points, the Irish felt pretty good.
“We knew we had made mistakes but were hanging with a team that had blown everyone out of the water,” Knudsen said. “We needed to score in the third quarter.”
Unfortunately for the green and black, they were unable to do so. Their first drive stalled on their own 44-yard line and a 55-yard return gave the Vikings another short field on the 32-yard line and they scored five plays later, converting a two-point conversion for a 36-16 lead. 
The Irish got another chance to cut into the lead with a 60-yard drive. Facing fourth and goal from a four-yard line, they were unable to convert their play into a touchdown.
Adding insult to injury, the Vikings put together their longest drive of the game, going 94 yards for a 43-16 advantage.
On their next possession, the Vikings pushed their scoring total to an even 50 points.
Though the outcome of the game was determined, with just 1:30 remaining, the Irish put together one final drive. Landon Caughey completed a 30-yard touchdown pass to Zach Johnson, who then threw to Nick Gapinski for a two-point conversion, to put the final score at 50-24.
“Our guys are fighters,” Knudsen said. “They’re going to battle to the end and that’s what we did. Again, we played a team that’s 13-0. There’s a reason why they’re 13-0. We just made too many mistakes early to stay with them the rest of the way. It was nice to see us score at the end of the game.”
Statistically, the two teams were very close, with the Irish giving up 391 offensive yards, including 288 rushing yards, while racking up 364 yards themselves, with 287 rushing yards.
Redemske led the way on the ground with 154 yards and a touchdown on 20 carries, followed by Trevor Borell (37 yards on four carries), Nic Paumen (30 yards on 10 carries), Strub (23 yards on four carries), Caughey (22 yards on 10 carries), Cody Bakka (17 yards on two carries) and Johnson (five yards on one carry).
Caughey completed six of nine passes for 76 yards, with five of those going to Johnson for 60 yards and a touchdown, with Redemske adding a one-yard catch. Strub accounted for the additional 15 yards on a pitch from Johnson after a catch.
Strub led Irish returners with 154 yards and a touchdown on six total returns, followed by Austin Becker (19 yards on two returns) and Borell (10 yards on one return).
On defense, Dominic Kaley led the way with seven tackles and one sack, followed by Trevor and Nic Paumen (five tackles each); Strub, Lucas Fobbe and Josh Gindele (four tackles each); Becker and Redemske (three tackles each); Derek Reller, Nick Gapinski and Borell (two tackles each); Devin Lowers, Stejskal and Caughey (one tackle each); and Damian Kaley and Ryan Kalinowski (one pass breakup each).
Damian Kaley was also injured when he was stepped on in the final minutes of the game and Knudsen reported he received 30 stitches in his leg.
Looking forward, Knudsen is optimistic about his team’s chances in 2014, though he knows other teams will be gunning for them along the way.
“We’ll have a target on our back because we’ve gone to state in three of the last five years,” Knudsen said. “We’re right there. The young guys need to believe that and need to get into the weight room and decide if they want to get back to state because it’s not going to be an easy road.”