Football: Lake City headed to 1AAA finals
LAKE CITY - Those with heart conditions should not ride roller coasters or watch the Lake City football team in the Section 1AAA playoffs.
In the quarterfinals against No. 7-seeded La Crescent, the No. 2-seeded and No. 7-ranked Tigers saw their 24-0 lead evaporate before coming away with a 24-21 victory.
Then in Saturday's section semifinals against sixth-seeded Winona Cotter, Lake City looked like it was in cruise control with a 20-0 lead in the first quarter. But it took all of 10 seconds for the Ramblers to cut the gap to 20-14 and keep the Tigers on edge for the rest of the game.
Sufficed to say, after coming away with a 55-32 victory over Cotter, Lake City head coach Trevor Narum was relieved the roller-coaster ride was over.
"I think I'm developing a heart condition after these last two games," Narum joked.
With the win, the Tigers head into the section finals against No. 1-seeded and top-ranked Rochester Lourdes, which defeated Plainview-Elgin-Millville 23-6 on Saturday. Lake City and Lourdes will play for a berth in the state tournament Friday at the Rochester Regional Sports Stadium.
While the defense struggled to slow down the Ramblers' no-huddle offense and quarterback John DeMarais in the second half, the Tigers were opportunistic with seven takeaways, including five first-half interceptions.
"We kept trying to put them away, but you have to give (Cotter) credit," said Lake City linebacker Mitch Kuchinka, "They didn't want to go away."
Lake City's high-powered offense bulldozed its way down the field on the first drive, with Kuchinka diving into the end zone for a 2-yard touchdown run.
With the Ramblers trying to respond, their first two offensive possessions ended quickly thanks to consecutive interceptions by the Tigers' Jake Griebenow. Griebenow then helped put Lake City up 14-0 with a leaping 7-yard touchdown grab on a pass from Ben Schramski.
"They just gave me the chances to make plays. Those throws were right to me," Griebenow said of the interceptions. "We came ready to play in that first quarter."
Narum added, "Jake came to play in the first half. He made some huge catches for us."
Schramski connected with another touchdown pass late in the first quarter, hitting Coleman Sweeney for an 18-yard score for the 20-0 advantage. Sweeney had four catches for 72 yards, and Schramski was 7-for-10 passing for 91 yards and three touchdowns.
Facing fourth down with 10:24 left until halftime, Cotter finally got on the board on a 42-yard touchdown toss from DeMarais to Jason Klug to put the score at 20-6. On the ensuing kickoff, the Ramblers recovered a squib kick at the Tigers' 26-yard line. And on the next play, Cotter scored again with a 26-yard pass from DeMarais to Jon Eichman with 10:14 left in the half.
Despite the first interceptions in the first half, DeMarais was able to keep Cotter in the contest, throwing for 415 yards and five touchdowns on 23 of 43 passing.
"It was frustrating," Narum said of his team's pass defense. "We just didn't play well in the secondary."
Luckily, the Tigers' offense remained nearly unstoppable, scoring three touchdowns in the final five minutes. Sweeney broke free for a 46-yard touchdown catch, followed by a 29-yard interception return for a score by Kuchinka.
"We were in cover-2 and all week, the coaches told us to watch for curls and watch for slants," Kuchinka said about the interception. "And I was right there for the pick."
With 2:51 left before halftime, Elliot Cox scored his first of three touchdowns, breaking free for a 9-yard touchdown run for the 40-14 advantage.
Needing to play catch-up, the Ramblers aerial game helped put up 14 straight points as Klug, who had eight catches for 174 yards, hauled in touchdown grabs of 42 and 11 yards. After another Cox touchdown put Lake City up 48-26, Klug snatched his fourth score of the night on a 33-yard catch late in the third.
With five minutes left in the game, Cotter looked to make it a one-score game after a 53-yard catch by Eichman put the Ramblers at the Tigers' 14-yard line. But on the next play, Lake City defensive lineman Alex Leonard came up with the biggest takeaway of the game, rounding up a fumble recovery that gave the Tigers the ball at the 17-yard line.
"I was very proud to get the ball," Leonard said of the fumble recovery. "I have to thank Coach (Rob) Nutt (for the play call)."
Trying to run out the clock, Cox broke free down the sidelines, going 54 yards for a score, cementing the victory for Lake City.
"That fumble was a huge play for us," Narum said. "Then we get that touchdown and we're able to put that game out of reach."
Cox had 128 yards on just 10 carries, while Will Balow was Lake City's workhorse with 21 carries for 120 yards.
After a tumultuous two weeks against La Crescent and Cotter, the Tigers aren't letting the defensive struggles keep them down. Instead, the focus is on getting Lake City to state for the first time since 2001.
"This time of year, we'll take a win any way we can," Griebenow said. "We're not done yet. We want to bring something special to this town, and we've been waiting for this chance all year."