Spring Lake Park ended top-seed Mahtomedi’s season with a 15-14 win in the Section 4-4A semifinal Oct. 26.
Only one loss from the end of the season was plenty of motivation for Spring Lake Park, but the fourth-seeded Panthers also had a 22-15 season-opening loss in the back of their minds as extra fuel to sustain the 2013 season.
Coach Jeff Schlieff implemented an uncharacteristic passing game in a short week (four days after a 29-0 win against Cooper) and the result was a place in the Section 4-4A finals against Andover Nov. 1.
“We were looking forward to it just to see how much we improved since then and it was another great game,” Schlieff said about the anticipation of a rematch.
With four days between the section games, Schlieff realized how lucky the team was in previous seasons to skip past the first round game. “You’re in a different, short schedule,” he said. “We have some sore kids in practice.”
After back-up quarterback Derek Salwei tossed his second touchdown of the game to junior Aaron Murphy, Schlieff made the call to go for the two point conversion with 5:30 left in the contest.
He said the decision to go for two points would have been a lot easier with 30 seconds left instead of half a quarter. “We’ve done it before,” Schlieff said. “We like to say that we are a three-yard team, but there was so much time left and the kids really wanted to go for it.”
Instead of pounding the ball ahead, Salwei found captain Grant Walter open for the all-important two-point conversion to take a 15-14 lead.
Salwei, the Panthers’ backup quarterback, completed six-of-eight passes for 92 yards in limited duty. Murphy had three catches for 57 yards. Salwei found him on a 32-yard score in the second quarter and found him again from 12 yards out to set up the go-ahead conversion in the fourth quarter.
Austin Swenson remains the Panthers starting quarterback, but Schlieff said they aren’t afraid to use Salwei.
“The inside running game wasn’t working like we’re used to,” Schlieff said about the run-heavy offense. “We started moving the ball and had a couple big third-down conversions and Salwei came in again in the third series and again in the second half.
“He was really poised and so we kept him in there on the two-point conversion.”
As for Swenson’s future, “Swennie brings so much to the table for us and he’s all for [Salwei coming into the game],” Schlieff said.
Panthers are passing
Salwei’s arm helped jump start the season back in week three.
At that point, the Panthers were 0-2 and needed something to put them over the top for a win.
Schlieff likes to give the backup quarterback at least one drive to gain experience.
Salwei not only gained experience but rallied the team with a pair of second-quarter touchdowns to highlight a 21-7 win at rival Fridley Sept. 13.
Spring Lake Park’s high-tempo defense opened sections with an impressive 29-0 shutout of Robbinsdale Copper in the final game at Panthers Stadium Oct. 22.
The No. 4 Panthers scored all its points in the first half before bearing down in the second half to preserve its second shutout of the season. Walter and Ejiya each ran the ball in for touchdowns. Walter scooped up a blocked punt 10 yards for a touchdown.
Defensively, Ejiya and Antonio Zepeda led the way with 14 and 11 tackles, respectively. Ejiya added a sack along with Ryan Amundson, Jeff Rush and Drew Fellenz. Toweh had eight tackles.
While the Panthers defense didn’t pitch a shutout like four days earlier, they held the top-seeded Mahtomedi offense to 162 yards through the air. Running back Jackson Hull had 104 yards and gave up two short rushing touchdowns.
Ejiya continued to leave his mark in several aspects of the game. He had a team-high 16 tackles (10 solos) with an interception. He also ran the ball a team-high 15 times for 68 yards, returned two kicks 41 yards and had two punts total 57 yards.
“He’s been a great player for us for three years,” Schlieff said. That isn’t limited to just Ejiya, but Walter and Toweh have to enter in the spotlight. “It’s been kind of fun for our backs because [Walter] has to be closing in on 1,000 yards and [Toweh] is leading us know as our third back with big games,” Schlieff said.
Fellenz and Amundson also start both ways along the lines. Amundson is a big-target tight end, while both provide a strong rush off the edge as defensive ends. “They’ve both improved a lot from the first game of the year where they were running up field and getting blind sided on a [run],” Schlieff said. “They’re smart enough to see that on film and learned from that.”
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