Snow started to fall on an angle, coating the Osseo High School field in a thin white sheet.
Cooper football trailed by three points early in the fourth quarter of a Class 5A quarterfinal against Alexandria.
The Hawks (9-2 overall) looked to have taken the lead on a 35-yard pass from senior quarterback Joe Russell to senior wide receiver/defensive back David Connors.
Despite several people on the sideline including reporters – later proved by photographic evidence – seeing Connors make a leaping catch, spin around and land in the end zone, maintaining possession throughout, the referees saw it differently.
That didn’t stop Cooper from claiming a 21-17 victory to advance to the program’s first state semifinal, however.
Just like the snow had started to fall stronger, the Hawks’ defense played stronger and didn’t let a turnover on downs after the missed touchdown call lead to the end of the game.
Instead, a fumble was forced and senior linebacker Joshua Gonleh recovered it inside the Alexandria 5-yard line. Senior wide receiver/defensive Andre Reese later ran in the 2-yard game-winning touchdown.
Russell said after the win that his team has been working toward those moments since before the offseason.
“It’s the best feeling in the world,” Russell said. “Since freshman year, we’ve all stuck together and played solid Cooper football. We came out and showed our family. We showed our grit, and we are going to the U.S. Bank Stadium because of it.”
The lone offense in the first half was a 23-yard touchdown pass from Russell to senior running back/defensive back Terrence Matthews. That briefly tied the game at 7-7, but senior Kristen Hoskins scored on an 85-yard kickoff return right afterward.
Cooper actually went into halftime down 17-7 before any snow had fallen, but the message in the locker room was clear.
Howard told his team that they didn’t play their best, but if they did in the second half, the Hawks would score 14 points and Alexandria would score none.
That’s exactly what happened.
“We went into the locker room in the first half, and we knew that wasn’t all we could get,” Russell said. “We had to come out in the second half and execute, and that’s what we did. We played a good football game in the second half, and we got the job done.”
Russell was a big reason for the comeback, as was Reese – who took over at running back with senior Camden Royal still out with a knee injury and junior Danari Connors being bottled up.
The Hawks started the second half on the Alexandria 29-yard line. Russell connected on three big first-down passes to keep the drive going.
Russell first hit senior wide receiver/defensive back Donte’ Williams on a 10-yard pass, and he connected with junior wide receiver/defensive back Keith Pierro on an 11-yard pass.
Later on a third-and-14, Russell threw up a jump ball down the right sideline and Connors went up and caught the ball for a 24-yard completion.
Russel then used his feet on a third-and-12 on the Alexandria 21-yard line. Russell scrambled for a 20-yard gain and a first-and-goal from the 1. He later punched in a 1-yard touchdown, and junior kicker Leo Garcia knocked in the extra point for a 14-14 tie.
The defense forced a punt on the next drive, which included a big tackle by senior lineman Carter Zirbes on Cardinals’ senior quarterback Carter Steffensmeier. Zirbes tackled Steffensmeier from behind and limited him to a 2-yard gain with a lot of space in front.
That set up an incompletion on a third-and-4 with pressure getting to Steffensmeier.
Of course, the next Cooper drive ended with the strange referee conference that overturned a Russell to Connors touchdown that clearly was a catch in that the ball never even touched the ground.
“We knew we were a better team than what we showed in the first half, and so we had to come out and dominate and win the second half,” coach Willie Howard said. “That’s what I have been asking our kids all year to do, just respond to adversity. Whether I am right or I am wrong, our kids went out there and responded.”
The defense and Reese did give the Hawks the 21-17 lead anyway.
Alexandria came back and drove the ball all the way into the red zone in its attempt to retake the lead, but another forced fumble on a fourth-and-2 run gave the ball back to the Hawks’ offense.
“The defense stepped up and played an amazing game,” Russell said. “The D-line, the DBs, the linebackers – they played an amazing game. I love them boys, and we are going to (the state semifinals) because of them.”
Reese and Russell were able to rush and gain first downs, forcing the Cardinals to call timeouts. The offensive line aided heavily with blocking to help take three minutes off the clock.
Russell said that at halftime, the offense as a unit knew it wasn’t giving as much effort as they are capable of doing. He talked with the offensive line, and the goal was clear – they had to step up.
“The (O-line) came out in the second half – they executed and they played hard,” Russell said.
Alexandria did get the ball back, but there were just 11 seconds to go. A few passes later, and the game was over.
Players ran onto the field and jumped around, hugging each other in celebration. Howard led a 1, 2, 3, family chant, and the Hawks screamed with joy.
Later, Howard’s son, junior tight end Jaxon Howard, screamed and hugged his dad near the locker room.
This team is headed to U.S. Bank Stadium to play in a Class 5A state semifinal.
Howard said that this is special, especially with all of the adversity the team has faced including helmet shortages, late buses and strange calls or no calls on the field.
“We talked about this with our team after the last section game last year during the pandemic,” Howard said. “We felt like we had a good opportunity with a good football team last year. We got people healthy from the COVID pandemic but didn’t get an opportunity to show people what he had.
“And this year, it is our time, and we have a game to play.”
State semifinal preview
10th-ranked Cooper will take on Mahtomedi (9-2) in the Class 5A state semifinal next at U.S. Bank Stadium. Tickets are available at mshsl.org/tickets with adults paying $16 and students paying $10.
That game will come after the Sun Post’s short Thanksgiving deadline, but a story will be online and in the paper along with the potential state final game.
Top-ranked Mankato West and fifth-ranked Rogers play in the other semifinal on Friday, Nov. 20. And the winners of the two semifinal games will play for the Class 5A state championship at 4 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 27.
Mahtomedi is the next opponent, coming out of section 4. The Zephyrs defeated Tartan in the 4AAAAA section final and then topped sixth-ranked Rochester Mayo 42-20 in the state quarterfinals.
Both teams played Simley and Spring Lake Park. Mahtomedi fell 35-7 to Spring Lake Park, while Cooper defeated the Panthers 35-7. Both teams won by multiple touchdowns against Simley.
Mahtomedi is a team that likes to run the ball but will throw occasionally. Senior 6-foot-1, 185-pound, running back/linebacker Jordan Hull is one of the main offensive weapons. Hull had three touchdowns against Rochester Mayo, including two over 50 yards.
Senior 5-foot-9, 170-pound running back/linebacker Nicholas Beiersdorf will also get carries, and he also reached the end zone against Rochester Mayo.
Sophomore 6-foot, 180-pound quarterback/linebacker Charles Brandt will share the ball with several receivers and backs, as well. He threw two touchdowns against Rochester Mayo, both to different receivers.
Defensively, the Zephyrs have a strong defensive line with junior 6-foot-4, 181-pound Cody Dvorak and junior 6-foot-3, 223-pound John-Paul Johnson.
The linebackers are also strong against the run, led by senior 6-foot-1, 185-pound William Arlandson, junior 6-foot-1, 166-pound William Harris and Hull.
The defense did allow five rushing touchdowns to Spring Lake Park but just four others against all other opponents this season. Only two touchdowns went for more than 20 yards against the Zephyrs.