There are a lot of great things that come from participating in sports, and when those Friday night lights turn on, there is something special in the air, a great feeling felt from the field to the crowd. But the cruel irony of a game between two winning programs is that one has to lose. Both Watertown-Mayer and New London-Spicer played like winners Saturday night at US Bank Stadium in the Class AAA State Tournament Semifinals and contrary to what the final score says, there were no losers Nov. 19. Especially not the squad that lost.
“I hope when it all settles here tonight, I hope every single one of them is so proud of themselves, because 0-18, they all could have quit, and they didn’t, and we get to play here, and that’s a lot of fun,” said Watertown-Mayer coach Andrew Phillips.
When coach Phillips took over the Watertown-Mayer program 5 years ago, the cards were stacked against him and the Royals. There was not a lot of success and the number of players on the team was so low that the program almost had to co-op with Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted just to have enough players to field a team. Yet the eighth graders on that squad, who are this year’s seniors, bought in to the ‘Build From Within’ mentality, and they did just that. They fought through two 0-9 seasons in years 1 and 2. They fought through the COVID year with a 2-4 record. And for their dedication and belief in themselves, they earned 18 wins over the past two seasons and a spot in the Class AAA State Tournament this year. If you would have told Phillips after an 0-18 start 3 years ago that the Royals would have been playing at US Bank Stadium, he would not have believed you.
“0-18, just staring at a senior class the next year of just five players, we knew we were going to be a young team back in 2020,” Phillips said. “And to be honest, I thought the greatest thing was when they said ‘We’re going to play Spring football, so you can have 12 practices in the Fall to get better,’ and I thought, ‘We need those. We need those 12 practices.’ But a lot of of these guys we have out here are those kids who played for us. We played a lot of sophomores, and that’s what puts us here. We have 18 seniors and you can look down the line and say, ‘3 year starter, 3 years starter, 3 year starter.’ That helps our confidence every single game.”
On Saturday night, the 11-1 Royals traveled to Minneapolis to play on the homefield of the Minnesota Vikings, facing a familiar foe in another matchup worthy of the professional venue. The last three matchups between the Royals and Wildcats were decided by one score (including a 38-36 victory for Watertown-Mayer earlier this year thanks to a last second 47 yard field goal by Ashton Hecksel) and this meeting would not break the tradition.
“I told our guys all week long as we prepared, the one thing he had to do was we had to limit the big plays,” said Phillips. “We knew going into it, you look at it on paper, we are two super evenly matched teams.”
The Royals came out strong, getting a quick stop on defense before hitting some big plays on offense. With the first drive stalled and facing a 4th and 3, Albert Rundell made the first of many big plays that came from the senior quarterback. Chased outside and facing a sack, Rundell cut back and brought the ball back up to hit Keagan Brassington for a 15 yard gain to keep the drive alive. Pair that play with a 14 yard scamper by Michael Foley and the Royals were knocking at the endzone. Rundell would convert another fourth down to cap the drive with a 1 yard touchdown to put the Royals up 7-0.
Unfortunately for Watertown-Mayer, the Wildcats would find their spark and put up 19 points to go ahead at halftime. Facing a two score deficit was nothing new for the Royals, as they had overcome that in their first matchup with the ‘Cats and twice against Cannon Falls in the first round of the state tournament. The brutal schedule the Royals face had prepared them for this moment, and they still believed the game was up for grabs.
“You could say I’m biased, but I think we play in the toughest district in the state of Minnesota,” said Phillips. “Last year we sent three teams to the state tournament out of our district, this year we sent two and two of us played right here. Like I told the guys last week after we won, somebody from our district is going to play for a state championship and that says a lot. Dassel-Cokato came out of our district and won a state championship and we played tough football every week. There’s not a lot of weeks where we get to take a game off. It’s a lot of fun. Our kids get beat up, but at the same time they gain a lot of mental toughness and they learn a lot about themselves. That’s what allows us to be in games like this and not give up.”
Heart of a lion
The Royals knew they were still in the game despite being down 19-7, yet they needed a spark. After their first drive, Watertown-Mayer only had 40 yards of offense and two three-and-outs the rest of the first half. Enter Albert Rundell.
“He’s our catalyst, a guy who steps in when we need it,” Phillips said. “They did a great job tonight stopping our run game early with Wyatt and Albert said, ‘Give me the ball,’ and that’s what you love to see. There were a couple plays there at the end of the game where I’m thinking ‘Oh man, this is going to be over quick,’ but then he runs for the first down or throws the touchdown pass. That’s just a kid who doesn’t want to lose and a kid who’s a fantastic leader.”
Rundell took the first snap of the second half and went right up the middle for a 23 yard gain. The Royals then rolled out a heavy dose of punishing runs by Wyatt McCabe and Michael Foley to get into the endzone, with McCabe punching it in from 2 yards out. The Royals found their spark and would score on three of their four fourth quarter drives.
While the Wildcats would respond with two more touchdowns, Watertown-Mayer was never out of the game, thanks in part to a Herculean effort from their senior quarterback. Down two scores in the fourth quarter, Rundell would will the Royals into the endzone two more times.
The first drive of the fourth quarter had Watertown-Mayer down 27-14. Giving it everything he had, Rundell ripped off runs of 21, 15 and 25 yards to get the ball into the endzone, evading numerous defenders each time.
No matter how many Wildcats tried to get him down, Rundell would not stop until the chains moved, as shown by a fourth down scramble with the game on the line. Down 33-21 with under 3 minutes left, the Royals were facing a 4th and 15. With no options open in the pass game, Rundell ran up the sideline and dove for the first down marker, picking up 16 yards. He followed up that play with a 32 yard touchdown to Gannon Lee to draw the Royals within five points.
“Heart of a lion, heart of a competitor, a guy who absolutely did not want to lose this game,” said Phillips. “He’s been a fantastic leader for us for 3 years, a guy we’re absolutely going to miss, but a guy who left it all on the field tonight. I know this one hurts him, but he’s had a heck of a career for us and I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
The final score had New London-Spicer ahead 33-28, but Watertown-Mayer still left as winners.
“Our kids battled hard to the very end and that’s all we can ask of them,” Phillips said.
The Royals battled through injuries and still had a chance to win.
“AAA football, you got a lot of guys who play both ways, we got guys out there that probably came off the field for less than 20 plays tonight and their toughness has shown,” Phillips said. “They’re going to be wounded warriors walking into school on Monday I know that, but all of them better be really proud of what they’ve done.”
Watertown-Mayer’s season came to an end Saturday night, but what a season it was. The 11-win 2022 season was years in the making. Many Royals over the years could have quit when simply winning one game was a tough ask, but they stuck it out. The Royals may not get to boast of a state championship this year, but they get to say something no others can – they built Watertown-Mayer football.
“If we had a Mount Rushmore of Watertown-Mayer football, we wouldn’t be able to put just four people on it,” said Phillips. “We’d have to put this whole class up there and the classes before them. They stuck with it. And these guys especially - as eighth graders 0-9, freshmen 0-9, and now all of a sudden here we are, playing in the state semifinals at US Bank Stadium.”
Albert Rundell ran 12 times for 125 yards and two scores, averaging 10.4 yards per carry. Rundell also completed nine passes for 90 yards.
Wyatt McCabe had 75 yards rushing on 14 carries for an average of 5.4 yards and one score. Michael Foley had six carries for 27 yards (4.5).
Gannon Lee had 73 yards receiving with one score and six catches. Ashton Hecksell had a 7 yard catch and Keagon Brassington had a 15 yard catch.
Patrick Duske led the defense with eight tackles, Brassington had seven, Ian Burau had six and Nicholas Anderstrom had five. Foley and Rundell each had a tackle for loss, while Dane Kaiser blocked a PAT.