As snow fell down on the field at St. Michael-Albertville High School on Friday night, the Elks were like children in a candy store after upsetting an undefeated giant. The Elk River student section chanted, “I believe that we just won!”
No. 3 Elk River (10-1) defeated No. 1 Robbinsdale-Armstrong (9-1) 32-29 and advances to the Class 5A state tournament. The Elks clinched their fourth-consecutive state tournament berth and have not missed the state tournament since 2015.
Head coach Steve Hamilton said he’s thrilled that his team will be playing in its fourth-consecutive state tournament.
“It hasn’t sunk in,” Hamilton said. “I’d never thought in my career that we’d have a run where we’re 44-5 in the last 49 games. Our kids believe. How many times have we had close games like this in the playoffs the last couple of years? Our kids believe that they’re going to win them.”
Armstrong opened the scoring at 10:14 of the first quarter when junior running back Caleb Jones ran five yards for his fourth rushing touchdown of the season. A two-point conversion from senior safety Jack Major made it 8-0 Falcons.
Elk River responded at 7:57 of the first when junior running back Rahim Avery ran 41 yards for his ninth touchdown of the season. Senior quarterback Beau Ruby made the two-point conversion.
Both teams traded touchdowns until late in the second quarter when Elks senior defensive back Nick Gill intercepted a pass from Falcons senior quarterback Jake Breitbach with less than a minute remaining in the quarter. Breitbach’s throw was off-balance after junior linebacker Carter Otto tackled Breitbach, causing him to fall down. At the end of the first half, Elk River led 24-23.
“If we’re playing solid on defense, we’re a tough out,” Hamilton said.
Still up 24-23 in the third quarter, Otto, now at running back, put the game away with a two-yard run to make it 32-23 with 5:40 remaining in the third. It was Otto’s 11th touchdown of the season.
Jones made things interesting with 1:40 to go in the game when he scored his third touchdown of the game on a one-yard run, but it wasn’t enough.
After the game, the Elks held up their section championship trophy high for all of the Elk River fans to see.
Gill said Elk River is not willing to go down without a fight.
“We’d faced adversity and we’re willing to fight no matter how we play,” Gill said. “Fumbles, whatever. We’re going to fight ’til the end.”
Offensive Player of the Game
Senior running back Joe Nordstrom rushed for 156 yards and scored two touchdowns, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. Nordstrom has scored 19 touchdowns this season.
Defensive Player of the Game
Gill’s interception was a turning point in the game. It was his first of the season. Had he not picked off Breitbach, Armstrong could’ve scored on that possession and possibly won the game.
Elk River was scheduled to play Moorhead (8-3) in the Class 5A quarterfinal on Friday at noon at Monticello High School. The Elks defeated the Spuds 40-20 in the last meeting between the two teams on Aug. 31, 2018. The winner will play either Owatonna (10-0) or St. Thomas Academy (9-1) in the Class 5A semifinal on Nov. 15 at 2 p.m. at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. Armstrong’s season is over.
Gill said although Moorhead has fewer wins than Armstrong, that doesn’t mean the Elks should take the Spuds lightly.
“We’re always up for a challenge,” he said. “We’ll be ready.”
Correction: A previous edition of this story said that the state semifinal between Elk River/Moorhead and Owatonna/St. Thomas Academy would take place on Nov. 16 at 7 p.m. That is incorrect. The semifinal will be played on Friday, Nov. 15 at 2 p.m. The location, U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, is correct.