On a cold and windy November evening, the Royals ended the Elks bid to win a fifth-consecutive Section 6-5A championship.
No. 1 Rogers (5-2) defeated No. 2 Elk River (4-3) 28-20 on Friday, Nov. 20 at Rogers High School to win their first section championship since 2011. It was the Royals’ first Section 6-5A title since moving to Section 6-5A for the 2012 season. Rogers became the first team other than Elk River to win the Section 6-5A title since St. Michael-Albertville in 2015. The Elks won four consecutive Section 6-5A titles between 2016 and 2019. It was also Elk River’s first and only road loss of the 2020 season.
Royals head coach Marc Franz said Rogers was pretty excited about ending a nine-year section championship drought.
“We have an extremely challenging section where whoever comes out of it does pretty well in the state tournament,” Franz said. “It’s nice for the team to be able to call themselves section [champions] and end this unique year on a positive note.”
Trying to remain unbeaten away from Jerry Schempf Field, the Elks drew first blood when senior running back Carter Otto ran for a 1-yard touchdown with 1:08 remaining in the first quarter. It was Otto’s eighth touchdown run of the season. Junior kicker Rylen Keoraj made the extra point to make it 7-0 Elk River. Rogers answered with 7:59 remaining in the second quarter when senior wide receiver Logan O’Neil ran 3 yards for his second rushing touchdown of the season. Junior kicker Dylan Honnoll made the extra point to make it 7-7.
With 3:20 remaining in the second quarter, Elks sophomore quarterback Cade Osterman broke the tie when he ran 4 yards for his third rushing touchdown of the season. Keoraj made the extra point to make it 14-7 Elk River.
One again, the Royals responded with 31 seconds remaining in the second quarter when senior quarterback Zach Evenson ran 4 yards for his third rushing touchdown of the season. Honnoll made the extra point to tie the game at 14-14, which would be the score at halftime.
Rogers took the lead for the first time when senior running back Ben Dahl ran for a 1-yard touchdown with 1:21 remaining in the third quarter. It was Dahl’s ninth touchdown of the season. Honnoll converted the extra point, giving the Royals a 21-14 advantage.
Rogers extended its lead in the fourth quarter on a dazzling play. With just over six minutes remaining in regulation, Evenson threw a long pass to O’Neil. O’Neil momentarily had possession of the football in the end zone as he fought off Elk River junior linebacker Jack Sumstad, but the football bounced off of Sumstad and back up in the air. O’Neil reached for the football before it hit the ground and made a spectacular catch for his first touchdown reception of the season.
Franz said O’Neil’s catch was incredible.
“[O’Neil’s] concentration on that was able to take advantage of the friendly bounce and haul it in for a huge touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.”
Otto scored his second touchdown of the game and ninth of the season with 4:54 remaining to put the Elks within eight at 28-20. Keoraj’s extra-point attempt was unsuccessful and Rogers’ defense held Elk River off the scoreboard for the remainder of the game.
Towards the end of the game, Royals senior tight end Tommy Gilmore, who broke his leg in Rogers’ 51-7 win over Sauk Rapids-Rice on Nov. 7, entered the field on a wheelchair escorted by senior offensive lineman Emery Jones. Like injured defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov inspiring the Detroit Red Wings to win the 1998 Stanley Cup, Franz said Gilmore served as a source of inspiration for the 2020 Rogers Royals.
“[Gilmore] is one of our senior leaders,” Franz said. “He’s definitely a leader by his work ethic and humble attitude and team-first demeanor. He had been attending some of our team meetings via Google Meet, and he always wanted to stay in touch with the team as much as he could. It was great to see Gilmore able to make it there on the sidelines and also his teammate, Emery Jones.”
Evenson spiked the ball on the last play of the game as the Royals stormed the field to celebrate a section title nine years in the making.
The two teams saluted each other by raising their helmets as they opted not to shake hands during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Franz and Elk River head coach Steve Hamilton did shake hands with their winter gloves on and congratulated each other on a great season.
Hamilton said he and Franz are good friends despite coaching two rival teams.
“We both felt the same way,” Hamilton said. “One, we were glad we played this week because we had five guys out and he had guys out this week. The way [the COVID-19] numbers are looking, I don’t know that we could even play next week. We were glad we got a chance to play. It was a fun way to end [the season] for both teams to play each other.”
After the Elk River senior captains accepted the second-place Section 6-5A trophy, Rogers senior captains Dahl and offensive linemen Riley Bauer and Charlie Folkens accepted the 2020 Section 6-5A championship trophy. Folkens lifted the trophy up for all the players, coaches and Royals fans to see.
Franz said it’s always fun to see pure joy and satisfaction on the players’ faces, especially Folkens and the senior captains.
“[Folkens] is a great kid, a hard worker,” he said. “It’s nice to see some of his dreams come to fruition.”
Offensive Player of the Game
O’Neil’s two touchdowns propelled Rogers to victory. It was his first multi-touchdown game of the season and the first of his career.
Franz said O’Neil’s offensive outburst was an example of the Royals’ offensive depth this season.
“We’ve felt that we’ve had depth of playmakers all year long,” Franz said. “It was fun to see a lot of them come together at the end of the season. Our offense has been inconsistent at times. To see the offense come together with its run-pass balance, being able to spread the ball around…that was a great way to end the year. The way the offensive line was able to physically control the line of scrimmage, especially in the fourth quarter, was satisfying.”
The 2020 football season is over. Rogers swept the season series from Elk River for the first time since the program began in 2003.
The Royals’ victory ended an impressive five-year stretch for the Elks. From 2016 to 2020, Elk River won 49 games and lost only 9 while winning the 2016 Class 5A title with Team 125. The Elks came within one win of repeating as state champs in 2017 and made the Class 5A Prep Bowl semifinals in both 2018 and 2019. Elk River has never won five consecutive section tournaments since the program began in 1892.
Hamilton said he told the team and the senior class that he was proud of what they accomplished in the program’s shortened and unusual 129th season.
“They’ve dealt with more adversity that maybe any class ever has,” he said.
“That’s not just Elk River seniors. That’s all of them. [I’m] proud that they were able to get out there and play. For our guys to turn around after a slow start and to play as well as they did for the last half of the year was fun.”
Franz said he congratulated the team and felt great after winning the Section 6-5A championship.
“With the end of the year being able to beat Elk River at the beginning of the year and the end of the year with the great rivalry that we have means a lot for the kids,” Franz said. “The fact that this is the last game that is going to be played on that field because that’s part of the reconstruction and the upgrades going to turf…to send it out with a win like that for the section championship was great.
“[I told them], ‘Congratulations. Nobody needs to rush out of here. Let’s hang out and take it all in as long as you want to.”
With Thanksgiving approaching on Thursday, Nov. 26, many Americans will be giving thanks for healthy lives. But this year, Thanksgiving will be different because of COVID-19. Hamilton said he is thankful that Elk River played a full season.
“In terms of football, I’m certainly thankful that we got to play every opponent we were supposed when we were supposed to,” Hamilton said. “Not many teams were able to do that. It was a fun group to be around. We will miss them.”
Franz said with football on the mind, he’s thankful that Rogers was able to play an abbreviated season this fall.
“I’m thankful we were able to get our abbreviated season in, especially for the seniors,” Franz said. “They were able to get seven games in this year and made the best of a difficult, trying situation. [I’m] hopeful that we can get a handle on [COVID-19] and get back to a sense of normalcy as soon as possible.”