OAK PARK HEIGHTS — After the start of its season was delayed by more than a month, the Stillwater football team did not fritter away its time when the season opener finally arrived on Friday, Oct. 9 at Stillwater Area High School.

The Ponies scored the first time they touched the ball and bolted out to a 17-0 lead in the opening quarter on the way to a comfortable 52-24 East Metro sub-district victory over White Bear Lake.

“It was a nice start,” Ponies coach Beau LaBore said.

After forcing a three-and-out for the Bears, Ian Hanlon took the ensuing punt for the Ponies and raced 58 yards for a touchdown and a 7-0 lead before Stillwater’s offense even stepped on the field.

The Ponies took the ball right back as Myles Schwerzler intercepted a pass at the White Bear Lake 28-yard line. Stillwater drove down the White Bear Lake 5-yard line on its first offensive series before senior Jake Huenink drilled a 29-yard field goal for a 10-0 lead less than five minutes into the game.

Stillwater’s momentum continued after another defensive stop and a short punt set up the Ponies at the White Bear Lake 40. A few players later, quarterback Casey Venske hooked up with Connor McCormick on a 19-yard scoring pass for a 17-0 lead with 4:43 in the opening quarter.

“Putting points up the first three drives is an outstanding way to start,” LaBore said. “Taking advantage of those opportunities is huge. Just because you get the turnover inside the 25 or have good field position doesn’t mean you’re going to cash in, but we did pretty much throughout the night.”

White Bear Lake eventually broke through with a 30-yard field goal from Jeffrey Odamtten early in the second quarter to climb within 17-3.

Stillwater increased its lead to 24-3 with two minutes remaining in the first half as Venske connected with Gavin Zurn for a 22-yard touchdown reception to complete an 80-yard drive.

The Ponies came up with another big play to start the second half as Dominic Krenz returned a kick-off 85 yards for the team’s second special teams touchdown of the night — igniting a 28-point third quarter for Stillwater.

“We dedicate a lot of time and effort to special teams and it’s been too long since we returned a kick or a punt for a touchdown,” LaBore said. “It was fun to see them both happen on the same night because it doesn’t happen very often. It’s nice to see that reward because we do put a lot of time and effort into them.”

It was Stillwater’s first special teams touchdown since Cooper Yeary returned the opening kick-off for a score against Mounds View in 2017. That also led the way to a lop-sided victory for the Ponies.

“I think your eyes would pop out of your head if you see how often a team wins a game when they get a special teams touchdown,” LaBore said.

Krenz, who led the Ponies with 80 rushing yards on 15 attempts, also scored on a 6-yard run just a minute later to push Stillwater’s lead to 38-3. That short scoring drive was set up Ian Tandy’s fumble recovery on the White Bear Lake 11-yard line.

Braden Berwald, who started for the Bears in their 24-14 victory over Stillwater a year ago, turned a broken play into a 61-yard touchdown pass to tight end John McBride with 10 minutes remaining in the third quarter.

Edward O’Keefe, who rushed eight times for 61 yards and also caught a pass for 23 yards, scored on touchdowns of 7 and 37 yards in the third quarter as Stillwater extended its lead to 52-10.

“There’s no reason that I would have thought we’d be up 52-10 in the third quarter, but that is a reality because of some turnovers and particularly because of some special teams success,” LaBore said. “It was a nice way to start the season, but we made very clear the start of the season is not going to be what people are thinking about but it’s about what we do from here and how much better we get from week to week.”

White Bear Lake scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to close the gap slightly.

This was the 103rd meeting between the programs dating back to 1914 and is believed to be the most-played rivalry in the state. With the victory, the Ponies have won 12 of the last 15 games in the series and improved to 59-41-3 overall.

“We have some nice pieces, but we have a ton of work to do,” LaBore said. “It’s not how you start or where you start, but where you finish. It’s a special game against the Bears and it’s a big game for a lot of our alumni. We tried to reiterate that we had a good start to the season, but hopefully it’s just a start to even better results.”

Venske completed 11 of 20 passes for 143 yards and two touchdowns, spreading the ball around to seven different receivers. Nicholas Schlender led the Ponies with four catches for 33 yards.

“I would say it’s always a benefit to have a quarterback that has some experience,” LaBore said. “Casey has been very steady, consistent, confident and poised throughout the offseason and summer and fall and that’s good for an offense. Our offensive line is on the young side and very inexperienced and has a long ways to go, but the early signs are that kids are willing to put in the work. If they can keep taking steps, that will be the biggest indication of whether we can move the ball and score points.”

Stillwater held a 156-82 advantage in rushing yards, limiting the Bears to just 3.0 yards per carry.

“We knew no matter what the game would be won or lost on the line of scrimmage,” LaBore said.

Another part of the special teams that contributed in a major way was senior kicker Jacob Huenink, who is also the starting goalkeeper for Stillwater’s conference champion boys soccer team, which began play as the top seed in the Section 4AA tourney this week.

In addition to booting a 29-yard field goal, the senior converted all seven of his extra-point attempts.

“He helped our team immensely on Friday, but his ceiling is very high,” said LaBore, who appreciates Huenink’s interest in playing football and the willingness of Ponies soccer coach Jake Smothers in allowing him to double up this fall. Kicking was definitely a concern for the Ponies coming into the season.

“Most of the time since I’ve been here there’s always been a guy who had the natural talent or developed that, but this year that was not the case and I didn’t think we had a guy,” LaBore said. “He might have noticed that and maybe the kids were encouraging it, but I’m just thankful and grateful. Obviously soccer is Jacob’s first sport, but we had a really good talk and he was really happy that he could help play a role.”

Huenink played when he was younger, but his practice time with the football team has been limited.

“He literally got a helmet and shoulder pads and gear about two hours before the game started,” LaBore said. “He hadn’t even practiced with a helmet on and we were throwing him out there.”

The victory was even more gratifying for the players and coaches when you consider in early August the Minnesota State High School League voted to delay the start of the football and volleyball seasons until March. The league’s board of directors reconsidered that decision on Sept. 21 and a shortened fall season was approved.

“We weren’t guaranteed anything in the spring, so it’s relieving to know we have a chance to at least play eight or nine games this fall,” LaBore said. “A lot of people have made a big deal about the things that are different or that we can’t do, but the most important thing as a coach or player is that we get to play, so let’s have a blast and leave it all on the field.”

Roseville, a Suburban East Conference team that Stillwater is not scheduled to play in the regular season, had to cancel its season opener against Cretin-Derham Hall because of COVID-19. Several other games were also impacted by the pandemic, though some were able to find last-minute opponents for opening week.

“We talked about how you have to play every play like it’s your last,” LaBore said. “Now, you honestly don’t know and your next play could be your last. You could be completely healthy an all of the sudden if you have an exposure in class or household or on the team you could be pulled out of the season for a couple weeks or if you have a breakout you could have the entire team out. There’s so many unknowns.

“All along I’ve hoped that bringing the season back was the right choice and after one week we’ve had a bunch of games played — and football has gone OK in Wisconsin to this point. I’m hoping at this point you just get to play all the games and we’ll keep doing everything we can to keep working on social distancing and sanitizing and managing protocols at practice and stuff. You can do everything right and this thing can still take you down. I just hope we get to play all the games.”

Woodbury up next for Ponies

The Ponies travel to two-time reigning sub-district champion Woodbury for their second game of the season on Friday, Oct. 16. The Royals opened the season with a 49-10 triumph over Mounds View.

Donald West rushed 11 times for 71 yards and a touchdown and also completed 5 of 8 passes for 71 yards and two touchdowns in Woodbury’s season opener.

“I think if you asked any of the coaches in the conference they would say Woodbury had the best team coming back,” LaBore said. “They were the conference champion and have a decent number of starters coming back at multiple positions. We’ll get tested big time this week.”

The Royals defeated Stillwater 42-14 a year ago, but the Ponies lead the all-time series 34-8 dating back to 1975.

White Bear Lake 0 3 7 14 — 24

Stillwater 17 7 28 0 — 52

St — Ian Hanlon 58 punt return (Jacob Huenink kick) 11:27.

St — FG Huenink 29, 7:25.

St — Connor McCormick 19 pass from Casey Venske (Huenink kick) 4:43.

WBL — FG Jeffrey Odamtten 30, 9:10.

St — Gavin Zurn 22 pass from Venske (Huenink kick) 2:03.

St — Dominic Krenz 85 kickoff return (Huenink kick) 11:47.

St — Krenz 6 run (Huenink kick) 10:58.

WBL — John McBride 61 pass from Braden Berwald (Odamtten kick) 9:55.

St — Edward O’Keefe 7 run (Huenink kick) 7:08.

St — O’Keefe 37 run (Huenink kick) 1:22.

WBL — Berwald 1 run (run failed) 8:24.

WBL — Oluwandara Animasaun 7 run (Berwald run) 2:57.

Team stats

WBL St

First downs 16 19

Rushes-yards 27-82 35-156

Passing yards 212 143

Total yards 294 299

Comp-Att-Int. 16-41-1 11-20-1

Fumbles/lost 1/1 2/0

Penalties/yards 4/40 3/45

Punts/avg. 3/37.0 1/35.0

Individual statistics

Rushing — WBL: Oluwadara Animasaun 4-30, Braden Berwald 6-15, Spencer Oxton 5-15, Rayshaun Brakes 2-9, Anthony Lewis-Royal 8-8 and Jeffrey Odamtten 2-5; St: Dominic Krenz 15-80, Edward O’Keefe 8-61, Joseph Krenz 7-27, Timothy Fultz 1-0 and Casey Venske 4-(-12).

Passing (com-att-yds-td-int) — WBL: Braden Berwald 16-41-212-1-1; St: Casey Venske 11-20-143-2-1.

Receiving — WBL: John McBride 1-61, Alexander Lockwood 6-59, Kaleb Kirschling 3-27, Spencer Oxton 2-33, Tanner Domschot 2-17 and Rayshaun Brakes 2-5; St: Nicholas Schlender 4-33, Edward O’Keefe 1-23, Connor McCormick 2-23, Gavin Zurn 1-22, Logan Carlson 1-16, Riley Dunbar 1-16 and Carter Bauer 1-10.

Kickoff returns — WBL: Spencer Oxton 3-65, Rayshaun Brakes 1-47, Jeffrey Odamtten 2-36 and Oluwadara Animasaun 1-7; St: Dominic Krenz 1-85, Carter Bauer 1-19 and Joseph Krenz 1-15.

Punt returns — WBL: none; St: Ian Hanlon 1-58.

Interceptions — WBL: Tanner Domschot 1-3; St: Myles Schwerzler 1-0.

Fumble recoveries — WBL: none; St: Ian Tandy 1-8.

Contact Stuart Groskreutz at stuart.groskreutz@apgecm.com

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