by Clay Sawatzke
Twenty five years after being crowned state champions, the Spring Lake Park football team is headed back.
In a Saturday night tilt that featured two dominant rushing attacks, and figured to be a high-scoring affair, it was the Panthers defense that stole the show. Spring Lake Park shut out the high-scoring Mankato West Scarlets 14-0 Saturday in a Class AAAAA state semifinal at U.S. Bank Stadium to earn its berth in the state championship game.
The defense was outstanding all game, but extraordinary late.
The unit kept Mankato West off the scoreboard for the first 45 minutes of Saturday’s contest, but they weren’t content with that. Instead, they decided to get greedy. Protecting a 7-0 lead, with less then three minutes to go, the Panthers defense pounced on a gigantic opportunity. West started its possession at the 33, needing to go 67 yards for a chance to even the score. They never got close.
On the first play from scrimmage, a group of Panthers led by Derric Bergman, hounded Mankato West quarterback Robert Meidl into a quick throw. The ball fluttered through the air, right into the waiting arms of Luke Onstad, who had started the play lined up at defensive tackle.
Onstad showed off some soft mittens, reeling the throw in before turning his eyes up field, where there was only green turf to be seen. The senior took off wheeling, and 25 yards later found himself in the end zone of U.S. Bank Stadium, with his Panthers en route to a state championship berth.
“My [defensive] line just got all the pressure so I gotta give all the credit to them,” said Onstad. “The ball kind of just came to me,”
The defensive line was brilliant on several big plays during the night, rushing Mankato West into numerous hurried throws. The secondary was big-play central. And the linebackers kept West from springing any major runs. It all added up to the Panthers, who had just one shutout all season coming into the contest, shutting out an offense that had scored at least four touchdowns in every single game they had played this year.
Coach Jeff Schlieff said it was a performance with few peers.
“We’ve had shutouts and great defenses, but that overall performance against a very quality football team was as good as I’ve seen,” said Schlieff.
It was a true bend but don’t break effort for the Panthers, who allowed 313 yards of total offense but always found a way to come up big when needed most.
Offensively the Panthers had to work harder for yards than in any other contest this year. They totaled just 194 yards for the game, with 160 of those coming on the ground. But they still found space to come up with one game-breaking play.
After the Spring Lake Park defense held stout on a fourth down try just across midfield, the Panthers took over possession at their own 42 with a third of the second quarter gone by. Following a five-yard gain on first down, Spring Lake Park called the number of star quarterback Zach Ojile on second down. The senior feigned a handoff then bounced toward the right edge, where he encountered two Scarlets defenders. Neither were a match for the shifty runner, who shook both defenders and bounced to the right sideline where he found space to run. Ojile turned on the jets and scampered all the way to the three-yard line, where he was escorted out of bounds.
Ojile, who remains undefeated in his career as the Panthers’ starter, led the Panthers with 67 yards on six carries, despite playing the second half on a banged up ankle.
“He sure is a nice luxury to have,” said Schlieff. “He makes all of our jobs a lot easier.”
Two plays later, Nick Robinson muscled his way in from two yards out for the lone score of the first half. Pedro Pliego, who went two-for-two on extra points in the contest, made it a 7-0 Panthers lead.
Both teams squandered a scoring opportunity prior to the SLP touchdown, with Mankato West missing a 33-yard field goal and the Panthers fumbling at the Scarlets 25-yard line.
But following that second quarter scoring drive, it was all defense, almost all the time. Mankato West’s next five drives ended in three punts and two turnovers on downs. The two drives that resulted in turnovers on downs did move well into Spring Lake Park territory, but each time the Panthers found an answer.
“Our guys just hung tough and hung in there and made plays when they had to,” said Schlieff.
Things got a bit wild in the fourth quarter. Mankato West, trailing by seven and without its star running back Charles Terry, who was carted off the field with a first-half injury, took to the air.
The Scarlets had found some success with the deep ball earlier in the contest, but on the final few possessions the Panthers defense had every answer.
Three consecutive Mankato West drives ended in interceptions. The first was snared by Cade McMahon who laid out to pick off a West pass at the 41-yard line after Joshua Ojile pressured the quarterback into throwing on the move. After Spring Lake Park fumbled the ball right back with four minutes on the clock, the defense stood tall again. On West’s first play from scrimmage they looked deep down the right sideline, but senior Brad Cooper read the play and sat right on the under thrown ball for the Panthers second interception in as many plays.
Spring Lake Park would go three-and-out on the ensuing drive, setting up the last minute heroics from Onstad, or, “Mr. Hands,” as his coach referred to him in the postgame presser.
“It was unreal,” said Onstad, describing the moment he saw nothing but green turf ahead of him. “Coach Schlieff always talks about it on Thursdays before the game, when you’re laying in bed you’ve gotta envision making that big play. I’ve been dreaming about that my whole life.”
With the victory, Spring Lake Park (12-0) moves on to the Class AAAAA State Championship, where they will take on the top-ranked Elk River Elks (12-0). Kickoff is scheduled for 4 p.m., Saturday. Nov. 26 at U.S. Bank Stadium.