Coming off of an emotional 58-55 win over Moorhead on Saturday thanks a last-second Hail Mary pass, Elk River came into U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis hoping to advance to their third state championship game in four seasons and their sixth since 1982. St. Thomas Academy ended those dreams.
The No. 8 Cadets (11-1) defeated No. 4 Elk River (11-2) 53-16 in the Class 5A semifinal on Saturday.
Elks head coach Steve Hamilton said Team 128 exceeded expectations this season.
“I don’t know if I’ve ever been more proud of a group,” Hamilton said. “Last winter, I told the coaches, ‘I think there’s a better chance we go 0-8 than 8-0 this year.’ These guys developed so much. They worked so hard. The senior leadership was unbelievable. I don’t know if these guys know how lucky [they are that] their entire high school careers ended at U.S. Bank Stadium.”
The Cadets got on the board first at the 7:37 mark of the first quarter when running back Danny McFadden ran 32 yards for his first touchdown of the state tournament. A two-point conversion by McFadden made it 8-0. St. Thomas Academy led 8-0 after the first quarter.
Elks running back Joe Nordstrom evened the score at 8 at 8:42 of the second quarter when he ran 11 yards for his 23rd touchdown of the season.
After Cadets running back Love Adebayo gave St. Thomas Academy the lead back at 6:14 of the second, the Cadets scored the next seven touchdowns and lead 24-8 at halftime.
Elk River quarterback Beau Ruby scored at 2:08 of the fourth quarter for his touchdown of the season to make it 53-14, but St. Thomas Academy was the team on the winning side of the handshake line on Saturday.
Ruby said the Elks didn’t hang their heads late in the game down 53-8 and continued to play until the final whistle.
“It shows we’re not going to give up,” Ruby said. “I’m beyond proud of a lot of the guys that were in there fighting. We had some seniors who hadn’t had great opportunities. They kept working at it the entire time and they got their opportunity and they stepped up. They made big plays. That’s all you can ask for.”
Cadets head coach Dan O’Brien said that the score was not an indicator of the competitiveness of Saturday’s game.
“It’s a much closer game than it was tonight,” O’Brien said. “Sometimes, things just get out of hand. [Elk River] is a very good football team. They’re averaging over 40 points per game. It was a challenging week for us defensively to come up with something that would work.”
Offensive Player of the Game
McFadden ran for 130 yards and scored three touchdowns, averaging 11.8 yards per carry.
McFadden said it was St. Thomas Academy’s best game of the season.
“We’re rolling,” McFadden said. “Everything’s starting to click. Our offensive line played out of their minds. The coaches put together a good game plan to help us win.”
Defensive Player of the Game
Cadets linebacker Simon Kotok had two sacks, four tackles and forced one fumble.
Nordstrom said St. Thomas Academy’s defense played aggressively.
“They were fast off the ball and they were physical,” Nordstrom said. “They hit hard and they were there when they got the ball.”
Elk River’s 2019 season is over. The Elks finished the regular season with a record of 7-1 and finished the postseason with a record of 4-1. Since winning the 2016 Class 5A championship in the program’s 125th season, the Elks are 1-3 at U.S. Bank Stadium.
St. Thomas Academy will face No. 2 Chaska (11-1) in the Class 5A championship game on Saturday at 7 p.m. The Hawks have never won the state championship, while the Cadets last won the state title in 1975. The Cadets are one win away from ending a 44-year drought. St. Thomas Academy lost 14-3 to Owatonna in last year’s Class 5A championship game on Nov. 24, 2018.
O’Brien said the Cadets will treat Saturday’s game as if it were the Super Bowl or the Rose Bowl.
“It’s been a long season,” he said. “We’ve been going at it since the middle of August. Unfortunately in the game of football, the healthiest you are throughout the entire season is that first day. It kind of goes downhill from there. They’re ready for a break. The coaches are ready for a break.”