Before the season Spring Lake Park coach Jeff Schlieff knew the schedule would test his team in many ways.
Losing the opening two games of the season to high-quality teams Mahtomedi and Irondale each with 4-2 records, gave the Panthers a sense of what losing feels like.
Since then the Panthers are 4-0 with wins over Fridley, Cooper, North St. Paul and Friday’s 21-20 win at perennial Class AAA power (state titles 2006, 2007 and 2008) Glencoe-Silver Lake which is also 4-2, but 3-0 at the top of the Wright County Conference’s West Division.
Panthers running back Richie Toweh set the tone early scoring on the opening possession from 25 yards out on what was supposed to be a short-yardage dive play.
“He got through the traffic and cut it back,” Schlieff said about Toweh’s run. “He’s our spark plug behind Eji [Ejiya] and Grant [Walter].”
Spring Lake Park averaged 5.4 yards per carry to keep the ball moving and failed to complete a pass on three attempts. Quarterback Austin Swenson’s lone pass resulted in an interception. Backup Derek Salwei went 0-2. Swenson carried the ball 10 times for 23 yards.
Ejiya, Walter and Toweh play both sides of the football, so spelling each other are key components to the Panthers success.
Walter had 101 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries, while Ejiya had 104 yards on 17 carries. Toweh finished with 69 yards on six carries.
Defensively, Ejiya had a team-high 13 tackles (six solos), Toweh had 10 tackles as a starting linebacker alongside Ejiya. Walter had eight tackles from his starting role in the secondary.
Junior defensive lineman Adam Klepsa also had a season-high 10 tackles.
Glencoe senior captain and running back Jake Stuedemann scored from 32 yards out to answer the opening score. That drive was created after Swenson threw an interception to cut short another promising drive for the visitors.
Spring Lake Park had trouble putting Glencoe away when Walter scored on an 18-yard run in the second quarter, but the extra point was blocked.
Down 13-7 in the closing moments of the first half, Glencoe’s defense stalled Spring Lake Park inside the red zone on fourth down and four yards less than two minutes before halftime.
Glencoe senior fullback Daulton Clouse scored from six yards with 15 seconds left and converted the extra point to lead 14-13 at the break, instead of down 20-7.
“What a turnaround,” Schlieff said, knowing that the reality of few chances remained to score given the nature of the game with two running offenses.
Walter put Spring Lake Park ahead for good (21-14) with a four-yard touchdown run with six minutes left.
“Got to give our kids credit for hanging in there,” Schlieff said about Spring Lake Park’s offense staying with the game plan until the end.
Instead of playing for the sure extra point to tie the game and send it into overtime, Glencoe coach Scott Tschimperle elected to try for a two-point conversion after Stuedemann scored his second touchdown of the evening with two minutes left from five yards out to make it 21-20.
Glencoe’s quarterback rolled out on a two-point conversion attempt with a Spring Lake Park player in his face as he threw the ball, perhaps redirecting it.
Spring Lake Park had trouble containing the run after losing two starting defensive linemen. Juniors Ryan Amunson and Jeff Ruch stepped into the starting roles along with classmate Michael Ekemezie, who was in the rotation on the line after earning practice player of the week the previous week. The other defensive end, Josh White, also returned for four practices leading up to Friday’s game after missing the last four games because of mononucleosis. White, a 6-1, 200-pounder started the season as the center but moved to tight end.
Senior Max Luppino stepped in to take over the center position.
Friday’s win was the third non-conference meeting for Spring Lake Park. Schlieff said the road win was a good opportunity to see how they matched-up against top-level competition.
“We told the kids that this is a great measuring stick for us after we lost two games to quality opponents [Mahtomedi and Irondale] because you can put Glencoe right in the class of those teams and see where we improved and where we are at,” he said.
Spring Lake Park returns home for the final two regular season contests including a Homecoming match up against St. Louis Park Oct. 11 and finish against Benilde-St. Margaret’s on Oct. 16.
Jason Olson is at