Short of the sticks
All good things must come to an end.
The Blue Earth Area Buccaneers just hoped the ending might come a little later than Monday night in Mapleton, where their longstanding postseason win streak against Maple River was snapped in a fight to advance to the Section 2AA championship.
State tournament contenders in four of their last five seasons entering 2016, the Bucs had an early grip on their showdown with the Eagles, holding tightly to a 7-0 lead at halftime. But three turnovers and an opportunistic second half from Maple River left the maroon and gold unable to claw out of a 21-13 defeat.
“We had opportunities to win the game,” said Bucs head coach Randy Kuechenmeister. “But I was proud of the way the kids battled.”
Opening Monday night’s battle, the Eagles had a couple of big early runs marred by a Kaylan Legred interception in Bucs territory. And while a deep ball by BEA senior quarterback Logan Jahnke on the subsequent drive fell into Maple River hands, the underdog Buccaneers regained possession after a sack by lineman Trevor Oppedal.
Jahnke made up for his interception his first turnover through the air in more than five weeks shortly afterward, breaking through the Eagles front seven on an option play and racing 85 yards down the sideline for the lone score of the first half.
Maple River went to the air on its own offensive series to follow, but the Eagles’ efforts were thwarted rather quickly by an aggressive push from the Bucs defensive line, as both Jared Armon and Zach Buseman got into the backfield to sack opposing QB Jeff Lewis and keep the score 7-0 heading into the third.
Early in the second half, a penalty allowed the Eagles to move into scoring range, and Maple River began emphasizing the run the team racked up 42 carries for 169 yards by night’s end on its way to a tying one-yard touchdown run by Lincoln Arndt.
Momentum really began to shift over the course of the next few drives, when Jahnke’s pass on a rollout was picked off along the sidelines and Maple River capitalized with another methodical scoring series centered on the ground game.
Already inching into Bucs territory after the interception, Lewis dished out a slew of handoffs for Maple River before running the ball himself on a seven-yard touchdown that put the Eagles up 14-7 with 6:05 remaining in the third quarter.
A fumbled read-option exchange during BEA’s next drive had the maroon and gold in danger of surrendering a third consecutive Maple River score, but the Buccaneers’ defensive front came up big once more on the resulting series, forcing a three-and-out after a Cole Klinkner sack of Lewis.
With the ball back in their hands and less than a quarter of football left to play, the Bucs offense finally started clicking, churning out several first downs after a short Maple River punt handed them favorable field position.
An 11-yard grab by BEA wideout Jonah Legred on a red-zone fourth down enabled the Bucs to keep driving, not to mention a roar of support from the team’s fans. And a six-yard strike from Jahnke to Legred a few plays later ensured the Buccaneers an opportunity to erase Maple River’s one-score lead with just under six minutes to go.
Needing one point to tie the contest at 14, the Bucs elected for some trickery, as Chris Sanders holding for a point-after try by his brother, Caelan instead took the snap and scurried to his left toward the endzone.
A fast break had Sanders eyeing two points that would have given the Buccaneers the lead, but a gang tackle at the goal line left his second-effort reach no more than a few inches short.
A couple more Eagles first downs on the ground got Maple River all the way into the Bucs’ red zone a few plays later, so BEA allowed its opponent to score on a seven-yard carry by Arndt in order to have one final chance at tying the Section showdown.
With less than a minute on the clock and each of their timeouts expended, the Bucs rattled off some quick passing attacks before a sack of Jahnke ended the comeback attempt.
It was a painful close to the season for BEA considering the Bucs had cruised past Lake Crystal-Wellcome Memorial in a 26-7 Section-tournament opener and entered Monday with a history of late-season dominion over Maple River.
In some ways, though, it was also a final validation of resiliency for a team that featured new starters at quarterback, running back and throughout the defense a team that, before surging into the playoffs on a five-game stretch of victories, had lost three of its first four in the regular season.
“Obviously everyone wants to win,” Kuechenmeister said, “but as a whole, we kind of became a team as the season went, and with five straight, just coming together, we really started to play like a team.”