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Orono defenders No. 11 Joey Greenagel, No. 21 Eli McKown, and No. 9 Victor Ruhland shut down a Grand Rapids run.. (Photo by Lisa Buck)

On a classic November night for football in Minnesota with temperatures in the 30’s and snow flurries, the Orono Spartans utilized the formula that has worked so well for them in this playoff run.

A gritty, turnover minded defense combined with big foyuth quarter scoring drives.

Down to just eight teams left playing Class 4A, Orono faced the section 7 champions Grand Rapids Thunderhawks with an impressive 8-2 record built on a physical downhill rushing attack.

On the opening drive of the game the Orono defense forced a quick three and out and then Charlie Brophy partially blocked the punt on fourth down. Orono started in great field position at the Grand Rapids 42-yard line.

On third down, a big play by the Grand Rapids defense breaking up a backward pass that nearly resulted in a scoop and score with tight end Louie Sustacek making a touchdown saving tackle. The Thunderhawks took advantage of the short field and put up the first points of the game a few plays later on a touchdown run. Nash Tichy broke through and blocked the extra point and it was 6-0 Grand Rapids.

Orono started the next drive from it’s own 39-yard line and used six running plays featuring Aiden Mueller and a big jet sweep to Victor Ruhland that gained 18 yards to put themselves in second and 6 from the Grand Rapids 15- ard line.

Charlie Kraus ran a play action roll out and threw a strike to a wide open Connor Mahoney at the 5 yard line and he took it in for the score. Jack Kalman drilled the extra point and Orono was up 7-6 with 3:41 left in the first quarter.

Grand Rapids took the next drive deep into Orono territory facing 3rd and 1 on the Orono 7. Griffin Reiner from his defensive tackle spot forced his way into the gap and stone walled the Grand Rapids back for no gain. On the very next play, Reiner recovered a Thunderhawk fumble to give Orono the ball back.

The Spartans were unable to move the ball and punted out to their own 48 yard line.

Grand Rapids, once again, took advantage of the short field and put the go ahead score up with just two minutes left in the quarter. They went for the two-point conversion and the Orono defense stuffed it to keep it at a five-point game, 12-7.

With time running out in the half, the Orono defense, once again came up very big forcing a fumble that Charlie Brophy recovered at the Orono 45 yard line. 18 seconds on the game clock and Charlie Kraus rolled out to his right evaded a sack and bought time with his legs looking for an open receiver. He found Will Peterson for a 29-yard gain and Peterson stopped the clock making the catch and getting out of bounds at the 24-yard line. Two plays later, Kraus floated a great ball into the back right corner of the end zone and just missed connecting with Josh Delange as time ran out in the half

Orono opened the second half with the ball and focus on a scoring drive. That was not to be as the Grand Rapids defense forced them to punt. Jack Kalman drilled another big punt and pinned Grand Rapids at their own 9 yard line.

Unfortunately for Orono, the next play was a 91-yard touchdown run for the Thunderhawks and a 19-7 lead. Each team went three and out on their next series.

The next drive for Orono is when the game began to change. Orono moved the ball from it’s own 35 out to midfield and a holding call turned great momentum into a potential drive killing 2nd and 20. Not for these Spartans.

The next play was a 19-yard pass from Kraus to Ruhland. On 3rd and 1, Mueller picked up five for the first down. Feeling the momentum swinging, Orono ran another play action pass and Kraus hit Tichy who made a nice move after the catch and picked up 16 yards to the Grand Rapids 26.

Orono moved the ball down to the Grand Rapids 7 yard line and faced 4th and 2 as the fourth quarter began.

On a night of big plays by so many kids, this one was essential to Orono’s comeback. Orono called their jet sweep and brought Ruhland in motion from right to left. As he got the ball a Grand Rapids defender had the angle and forced the play wide. Ruhland cut up field right before going out of bounds, shrugged off the tackler and took the ball down to the 3 yard line for a huge Orono first down. On second and goal, Kraus hit Tichy for a touchdown. Orono went for two and Kraus beat the defense running off the right side to convert and Orono trailed 19-15 with 8:30 left in the game.

The Orono defense, sensing the opportunity, refused to lose and gave up just two yards on the next Grand Rapids series forcing a punt.

After the Grand Rapids punt, Orono took over on it’s own 31 with six minutes left in the game. Five straight Mueller runs and 39 yards later, Orono had a first down at the Rapids’ 34. Kraus tried a play action rolling to his right and just missed Connor Mahoney for a big gain. The next play was Mueller rumbling off the right side for a 22-yard gain down to the 11 yard line and another first down.

Orono went back to the jet sweep to the left and Grand Rapids was ready, stopping the play for a six-yard loss. On 2nd and 16 Kraus, under heavy pressure, threw the ball away as he tried to roll out. On third and 16 with the clock ticking down, Kraus dropped back and launched a perfect fade into the deep right corner of the end zone and Josh Delange who made his fourth and biggest touchdown catch of the playoffs. Jack Kalman drilled the extra point and Orono had 22-19 lead with just 2:00 left.

Grand Rapids started at their own 34 and picked up 17 yards to the Orono 49 on the first play. Mason Pankonin made a huge tackle on 2nd down for a one yard gain. An incomplete pass on 2nd and 9 followed by an eight yard gain on 3rd down set up a 4th and 1.

Charlie Brophy made another huge defensive play forcing a fumble that Grand Rapids recovered at the 50 giving Orono the ball on downs.

In a state playoff game, there is no better formation than victory formation and Orono ended the game taking a knee.

Orono is one of just four teams left standing as the Spartans role into the state semifinal where they will face the No. 2 seeded and No. 2 ranked Hutchinson Tigers. These two teams have a long history with each other going back to the Wright County Conference and prior to that the old Suburban West Conference. With football’s realignment to district play, these teams have not faced each other since 2014. Hutch’s only loss this season has been to No. 1 ranked Becker.

This will be the Spartans second trip to the semifinal game in school history.

In what has been a fantastic and unexpected late season run, the Spartans are playing with “house money” and will push all their chips to the middle on Friday, Nov. 19 in a 4:30pm kickoff at US Bank Stadium.

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