Two of the top Class AAAAA programs in the state over recent seasons opened the 2013 season at Panthers Stadium and Mahtomedi came away with a 22-15 victory over Spring Lake Park.
The game was the first of three non-conference games for the Panthers, who begin the march for a fourth straight North Suburban Conference title at Irondale this week in the Battle for the Block.
Panthers quarterback Austin Swenson ran for two touchdowns, but the Zephyrs took advantage of inexperienced Panthers offensive and defensive lines with key contributors on both sides of the ball in the mid-summer heat.
Spring Lake Park’s most experienced lineman, defensive tackle Adam Klepsa, didn’t play after being hospitalized for dehydration the week before the opener.
Swenson ran for 87 yards against Mahtomedi and senior captain Eji Ejodamen had 84 yards on the same number of touches, 15. Running back Grant Walter carried the ball 12 times for 37 yards.
Swenson couldn’t accomplish much through the air, completing just one-of-four passes. Receiver Aaron Murphy went 19 yards on the lone completion.
Walter led the defense with 12 tackles, followed by Ejodamen with 11 and Richie Toweh with 10 tackles.
All three leading tacklers rarely came off the field, which was quite the accomplishment for Toweh, who sprained an ankle two weeks ago. He took over a starting role midway through last season. The coaching staff cut his offensive reps down to keep him fresh in the opener.
A few days after the game, Toweh seemed to re-aggravate the injury and Spring Lake Park Coach Jeff Schlieff hopes he will be close to 100 percent health for the important game this week.
Zephyrs quarterback Colin Baumgard completed 11 of 18 passes for 123 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 23 yards on nine carries. Running back Jackson Hull collected 109 yards rushing on 23 carries and one touchdown.
According to Schlieff, the Zephyrs had run the ball more in recent seasons, but with a talented returning quarterback in Baumgard and receiver Mireault, the Zephyrs have broadened their attack.
“After viewing [the game tape], we can get much better,” Schlieff said. “The kids have the ability and talent to play with Mahtomedi, but we had a lot of rookie mistakes, not only on the field but on us as coaches, too.”
He pointed to a 11 to four penalties edge against the Panthers, who also lost the turnover battle 2-0. “We knew we could match-up with them on the field,” Schlieff said. “I’m pleased to see that we’re on the same caliber as Mahtomedi.”
Mahtomedi’s Baumgard connected with Mireault to give the visitors the opening lead less than six minutes into the game.
Swenson capped a second-quarter drive with a touchdown to pull even and kicker Danny Chlebeck converted the extra point kick.
Just before halftime, Mahtomedi’s passing attack negated the Panthers defensive pressure with a second touchdown through the air. This time Baumgard found Aaron Caswell for the score, 2:09 in front of halftime.
After a scoreless third quarter, Swenson ran for his second touchdown, 1:03 into the final quarter, to pull the home team within one point of the lead, 14-13. The Panthers quarterback found Ryan Amundson for the two-point conversion pass to give the home fans something to cheer about and a 15-14 lead with 10:27 left in the contest.
Just over three minutes later Mahtomedi dealt the Panthers the decisive blow when Hull ran in for a touchdown to make it 20-15 followed by a two-point conversion when Baumgard hit Mireault for the final score, 22-15.
The loss snapped a 13-game regular season winning streak for Spring Lake Park, dating back to a 20-7 loss to rival Totino-Grace Sept. 16, 2011.
Mahtomedi also defeated the Panthers in their previous meeting – a 14-0 loss in the 2002 Section 4AAAA semifinal when the Zephyrs went on to win the state title.
Aside from a rivalry game this week, the Panthers look to open the final go-around in the North Suburban Conference at the runner-up Knights with its first win of the season.
“We’re proud of the tradition we have in the trophy case and it would be awesome to finish it off well,” Schlieff said, looking for a seventh conference title in nine seasons.
Irondale traveled to Spring Lake Park’s weight room this past off-season for a weight lifting challenge. The Block was hanging in the room as a reminder of who won the previous two years and helped ignite the passion on both sides of the blue-and-maroon battle.
The traveling chunk of wood has a blue and maroon handle to signify the number of lumber-affiliated businesses and jobs along Old Highway 10 back in the 1960s and 1970s. Schlieff said the trophy helps represent the blue-collar tradition from Spring Lake Park through the Mounds View/New Brighton communities.
Schlieff didn’t need to remind the Panthers of the added incentive in 2011. Spring Lake Park opened the season with a 17-0 win at Irondale, which was followed by a rush by the players to the end zone to grab the trophy. “I had to apologize to the coach because they sprinted to the end zone [for the trophy] instead of shaking hands,” he said.
Irondale opened the season with a 49-35 win against Northfield Aug. 30. The backfield pair of Victor James and AJ Myles collected 329 yards on the ground with five touchdowns, using the spread offense to create mismatches on the ground and through the air. James had 197 yards on 31 carries and four scores, while Myles averaged 14.7 yards on nine carries.
Schlieff is excited to put his group against an Irondale group that is hungry to hoist its first traveling trophy away from Spring Lake Park, he said.
“Irondale is very explosive, offensively and they have a running back who is a big-tough runner,” Schlieff said. “Then they spread the defense open the middle and can sweep you outside. They’re offense is capable of putting up some points and their defense is fairly solid.”
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