Andover wins overtime thriller against Panthers

One year after Spring Lake Park ended Andover’s season with a one-point win, the roles were reversed as No. 2 seed Andover topped No. 3 Spring Lake Park 33-32 in overtime in the Section 4-5A championship game played at Andover Nov. 1.

Spring Lake Park scored 21-6 unanswered points in the second half to take the lead before Andover scored a late touchdown to tie the game and force overtime.

Spring Lake Park senior Ejodamen Ejiya, right, is wrapped up by three Andover players during the Section 4-5A championship game at Andover Nov. 1.

Spring Lake Park senior Ejodamen Ejiya, right, is wrapped up by three Andover players during the Section 4-5A championship game at Andover Nov. 1.Photo by Bill Jones

“I was proud of the way the kids battled back after coming out on the wrong end of the close plays in the first half,” Spring Lake Park coach Jeff Schlieff said of their ability to compete, despite losing receiver/defensive back Aaron Murphy to a broken ankle two days before the game. He had caught two touchdowns in a 15-14 win the previous week.

Both teams scored touchdowns on their opening possession of overtime, but Spring Lake Park elected for a fake extra-point attempt after two extra point blocks earlier in the game by Andover’s Kyle Kettler.

Before overtime Schlieff talked extra-point strategy with the coaches. “We saw [Kettler] flying around on the tape but we weren’t that comfortable with the two-point play,” he said. “We burned our luck last week [winning on an extra-point conversion against Mahtomedi 15-14].”

Panthers holder and quarterback Austin Swenson rolled to his right before his pass to junior tight end Josh White was deflected by Andover’s Wes Walstad incomplete to end the game.

The result returned Andover to the state tournament for the second time in school history. The Huskies lost to Eden Prairie 42-7 in the Section 5A quarterfinals in 2007 and finished with an 8-4 record.

Andover running back Derek McLaughlin is stopped by Spring Lake Park’s Devonte Skrebes Nov. 1. McLaughlin ran for 194 yards and three touchdowns in the section final.

Andover running back Derek McLaughlin is stopped by Spring Lake Park’s Devonte Skrebes Nov. 1. McLaughlin ran for 194 yards and three touchdowns in the section final.Photo by Bill Jones

In the section final Friday, Andover featured a balanced offense of quarterback Connor Wilkie with capable receivers combining with a running game featuring Derek McLaughlin.

McLaughlin ran for 194 yards and two touchdowns. He also caught a pair of passes for 25 yards. Connor Wilkie passed for 193 yards on 12-of-24 passes with three touchdowns and two interceptions.

Homefield success

Connor Wilkie hit his favorite target Chris Larson on a 31-yard strike four minutes into the contest to give Andover the lead, but the extra-point attempt failed. Larson finished with six catches for 70 yards and two touchdowns.

Spring Lake Park looked ready to respond, returning the kick off to midfield. Running back Grant Walter appeared to spin and juke his way into the end zone from 11 yards out. He was ruled down at the one-yard line, which proved to be huge.

Andover stopped Richie Toweh before the goal line and the ball was knocked free before being recovered by Huskies senior Cody Butala.

Andover receiver Justin Freyholtz is tripped up by two Spring Lake Park players during the Huskies 33-32 win in the Section 4-5A final Nov. 1.

Andover receiver Justin Freyholtz is tripped up by two Spring Lake Park players during the Huskies 33-32 win in the Section 4-5A final Nov. 1. Photo by Bill Jones

Not to be outdone, Spring Lake Park junior Michael Vandenbrook stepped in front of Sam Steckman to intercept a pass from Connor Wilkie on the Spring Lake Park 35-yard line.

After trading possessions, Spring Lake Park’s Swenson slipped 34 yards up the heart of the Huskies defense for a quarterback-keeper touchdown with 3:14 left in the opening half. He finished with 73 yards on 10 carries. After the extra point, Spring Lake Park led 7-6.

Schlieff said Swenson made the proper call at the line of scrimmage and went for it.

“We were concerned that our offensive line might not be able to move the ball, but Swenson made a great call at the line,” Schlieff said.

Looking to one-up the visitors, Connor Wilkie found tight end Steckman open on the first offensive play and the junior ran 68 yards for the score. The play took 15 seconds and came 49 seconds before halftime.

Andover’s Austin Lorch, left, wraps up Panthers Grant Walter, right, during the Huskies 33-32 win in the Section 4-5A championship game played at Huskies Stadium Nov. 1.

Andover’s Austin Lorch, left, wraps up Panthers Grant Walter, right, during the Huskies 33-32 win in the Section 4-5A championship game played at Huskies Stadium Nov. 1.Photo by Bill Jones

Andover continued to find the weaknesses in the Panthers defense, scoring on its first offensive play of the second half. McLaughlin took a toss right 53 yards for the score thanks in part to down field blockers, including Larson, to help him reach pay dirt.

Andover led 20-7 after the point-after kick was good with 9:53 left in the quarter.

Andover coach Rich Wilkie said he was proud of the way his team made plays throughout the game.

“Up 20-7 with the ball, I felt really good and if we got another score we could break this thing open,” Wilkie said.

But Spring Lake Park’s all-around standout Ejodamen Ejiya returned an interception 35 yards in the third quarter to spark the Panthers comeback.

Down 20-7, Ejiya made a remarkable move from his linebacker spot to catch the ball, then outrun everyone into the end zone.

“It’s one of the greatest interceptions I’ve seen,” Wilkie said as the tide turned away from Andover. “But credit our kids for dealing with the adversity.”

Kettler blocked the first of two extra-point kicks after Ejiya’s interception touchdown to preserve a seven-point lead.

Andover defensive lineman Corey Parsons, left, wraps up Spring Lake Park quarterback Austin Swenson, right, during the Huskies 33-32 win at Huskies Stadium Nov. 1.

Andover defensive lineman Corey Parsons, left, wraps up Spring Lake Park quarterback Austin Swenson, right, during the Huskies 33-32 win at Huskies Stadium Nov. 1.Photo by Bill Jones

“He’s been close to getting those all season. He’s got a good nose for that and those points end up being crucial in a game like this,” Wilkie said.

That play was followed by an onside kick recovery by the Panthers to add to the momentum swing.

Spring Lake Park looked to capitalize on its chance but backup quarterback Derek Salwei’s pass glanced off Ejiya’s hands and into Huskies defensive back Austin Lorch at the Andover 15-yard line.

After an Andover punt, Spring Lake Park began with the ball on the Huskies 40-yard line. Ejiya took a fourth-down and six yards to go pitch around the right side of the line for an 11-yard run down to the Andover 25-yard line.

Ejiya eventually scored from eight yards out on a powerful sweep to the left where he dove inside the front pile-on to tie the game at 20-20. He ran for two touchdowns and 83 yards.

Looking to restart the offense, instead Andover turned the ball over for a second time of the half on a botched exchange between Connor Wilkie and McLaughlin. Spring Lake Park’s Josh White recovered the ball on the Andover 39-yard line with 9:55 left in the regulation.

Toweh spun around the right tackle from four yards out to give the Panthers its second lead, 26-20, with 6:06 left. The scoring drive included a fourth-down conversion at the 21 yard-line by Swenson.

Spring Lake Park missed the point-after kick, but a penalty on Andover allowed the visitors a second chance to go ahead by seven points.

Instead, Andover’s Kettler blocked his second kick of the contest to keep it to a six-point lead with 6:00 left.

Needing to find points to keep pace with the Huskies, Connor Wilkie ran for a third-down conversion at midfield and McLaughlin added a 28-yard dash before setting up a one-yard touchdown catch by Larson to tie the game at 26-26 with 2:33 left.

Andover faces Chaska in the Class 5A state quarterfinals at Edina High School Nov. 9. The Hawks reached the state tournament for the first time since 1974.

 

Jason Olson is at
jason.olson@ecm-inc.com

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