The North Branch football team had its season ended by Rocori High School 22-12 on Thursday, Nov. 10, in the quarterfinal round of the Minnesota State High School football tournament.
It was a historical season for the Vikings, who qualified for the state tournament for the first time in school history.
North Branch (8-3) executed its ball control game plan to near perfection in the first half, possessing the ball for more than 23 of the 24 first-half minutes. Despite the Vikings moving the chains the entire half, the offense sputtered in the red zone on both of their clock-eating drives and failed to put points on the board.
Rocori (9-2) made the most out of its only possession of the first half, quickly driving down the field and scoring a touchdown on a 52-yard wide receiver pass from Will Steil to Adam Langer on the final play of the first quarter.
The Vikings’ second drive of the game took up the entire second quarter, and head coach Justin Voss called a timeout with one second remaining in the half and the team facing fourth and goal from the 3-yard line.
Senior quarterback Preston Peterson sprinted out to the right, but the Rocori defense was up to the challenge and stuffed Peterson before he could turn to the corner.
The fourth-down stop to end the half was a huge momentum swing for Rocori, as the Spartans went into the half leading 6-0 despite being dominated by the Vikings up to that point.
“Obviously going into that drive not having that finish. We have to finish in the red zone,” Voss said. “That’s key to any team being successful, and we didn’t do that.”
Rocori received the ball to start the second half, but the Vikings’ defense stole the momentum back when senior free safety Jacob Robillard intercepted a pass from Rocori quarterback Jack Spanier.
The Vikings took advantage of the short field and tied the game up at 6 when Peterson took a quarterback sweep 10 yards for a touchdown. A bad snap on the extra point prevented North Branch from taking the lead.
“I absolutely loved how our guys responded and kept on fighting,” Voss said. “It just shows senior leadership there, and believing in who we are and what we do — and not getting away from that.”
The second half would prove to be a back-and-forth affair. Rocori’s explosive offense marched right down the field on the next possession and regained the lead on an 8-yard touchdown pass from Spanier to wide receiver Hunter Nistler, who beat his defender on a slant pattern over the middle.
Steil added the 2-point conversion on an inside run, giving the Spartans a 14-6 lead late in the third quarter.
Not going out without a fight, North Branch hit paydirt again when senior fullback Sam Robillard scored on a 3-yard dive with just over eight minutes remaining in the contest.
Needing a successful 2-point conversion to tie the game, the Rocori defense stepped up once again in a critical moment and stuffed the Vikings run play, preserving the Spartans’ lead at 14-12.
Less than one minute later, Rocori made the play of the night. Facing a third and long, the Spartans called a screen pass, running back Sebastian Novak received the ball and turned upfield, then outran the Vikings defense to find the end zone from 55 yards out.
Another successful 2-point conversion gave Rocori a two-possession lead at 22-12, and that score would prove to be the final points of the night.
With the clock working against them, North Branch was forced to play up-tempo and struggled to move the ball the rest of the game.
North Branch’s successful season ends with the team collecting an impressive eight wins on the year.
“These guys, what they did here today, they let people know about what North Branch football is all about,” Voss said. “I’m incredibly proud of their efforts. All our guys, our coaching staff.
“The amount of community support we had this year and especially this week. It just shows the strength of our community and strength of our football family.”