There were no deviations from the script.
A powerful, relentless ground game to control the clock, mixed with a tenacious defense limiting scoring chances and applying constant pressure.
And as the clock wound down, no alternate endings.
In a rematch from a year ago, the Section 5-5A championship once again belonged to Spring Lake Park Nov. 1, as the Panthers defeated visiting Robbinsdale Cooper 28-21 to earn a trip back to state.
“Myself and the coaching staff are excited for the players,” Spring Lake Park head coach John Stewart said. “They have invested quite a bit and it is great to see it paying off on the field. We started the year rough and really needed to get focused on the fundamentals to get our team to have the tools needed to perform at a high level. The players committed to focusing on the details and getting better each day. It is fun to go to practice with them, they bring a great attitude and energy every day.”
After a scoreless first quarter, the Panthers struck first on a 35-yard touchdown run by Henry Dennis to take a 7-0 lead early in the second quarter.
Cooper answered quickly, connecting on an 80-yard scoring pass and a two-point conversion run to gain an 8-7 edge.
Then it was the Panthers’ turn to respond, regaining the lead before the half on a 6-yard Zack Dunbar touchdown keeper before seizing control in the third quarter on scoring runs of 14 yards by Dunbar and 30 yards by Dennis to take a commanding 28-7 lead into the fourth.
Cooper managed a pair of touchdown passes down the stretch, the latter to pull within a possession with 1:15 remaining, but it was too little too late as the Panthers closed out the repeat title.
“We started off really well and were able to control the football most of the game,” Stewart said. “As usual there is still work to do to put everything together and play our best game.”
“The section championship game was a big accomplishment for our team and one of our team’s goals this year,” Dunbar said. “It means a lot to head back to state and get the opportunity to play for a ring. We are going to go out there and give it our all.”
Dennis finished with 169 rushing yards, Dunbar picked up 115 and Brian Orellana added 18 as the Panther offense continued to thrive utilizing an unwavering commitment to the run. Dunbar also mixed in a 30-yard completion to Trey Toner on his lone pass attempt as the Panthers extended their winning streak to seven.
“I feel like every aspect of our offense has been clicking very well these last seven games,” Dunbar said. “Our O-line is giving us great blocks up front, and the running backs are running very hard and pulling guys for extra yards. Lastly, our wide receivers are giving great blocks and when they have the opportunity they go out and make a play for a jump ball.”
Blaine Cooper led a defense that has been at the heart of the team’s second-half resurgence, registering 15 total tackles and a sack. Joey Sorenson made nine tackles, Jacob Fritz had eight stops and Jesse Sills intercepted a pass.
“We have played really well this second half of the season,” Cooper said. “We had a lot of seniors graduate last year, especially on the D-line, but we have really come a long way this year.
“We let up some big plays, but we made some big plays ourselves and forced turnovers when it counted.”
The Panthers improved to 8-2 with the win. The team’s last defeat came 23-14 on Sept. 13 against Coon Rapids, which will also be the Panthers’ Class 5A state quarterfinal opponent Saturday, Nov. 9 at 12 p.m. at Osseo High School. Coon Rapids won the Section 7-5A championship game 17-14 over Andover.
“Coon Rapids is a nice team that is doing a lot of things well,” Stewart said. “Being that is was game three of the regular season, both teams are different now and it looks to me a good game.”
The winner of the game advances to the Class 5A state semifinals Friday, Nov. 15 at 2 p.m. at U.S. Bank Stadium against the winner between Chaska and Mahtomedi.
“It feels amazing to get back to the state tournament,” Cooper said. “We have been here before and we are looking to do big things this year.”