ROCHESTER — The first half of Saturday's Section 1AAA semifinal was a good one for Zumbrota-Mazeppa. The Cougars led by a field goal after the first quarter, and by two points at halftime.
But Rochester Lourdes, which beat Z-M to open the season, found its groove in the second half. The Eagles did not allow the Cougars to score over the final 35 minutes, 50 seconds on the way to a 20-9 victory that sends Lourdes into the section final against Plainview-Elgin-Millville.
"Our kids kept after it," said Z-M head coach Darin Raasch. "We left some opportunities on the table. But hats off to Lourdes, they're very precise and well-coached. They got a few (big plays), and that's a credit to (Lourdes) coach (Mike) Kesler."
The Cougars moved the ball well in the first quarter. A 12-play drive to open the game stalled on the Eagles- 27-yard line, and then Tyler Grudem ended Z-M's second drive with a 28-yard field goal.
Near the end of the first quarter, the Cougars got the ball back, and Jacob Bennett picked up 20 of his 71 yards on three of his 17 carries in the game. On the first play of the second quarter, Isaiah Nolte and Robvon Jackson, who had 93 yards on seven receptions, connected for a 40-yard touchdown. The PAT was blocked, but Z-M was up 9-0.
Lourdes answered with a long drive, which culminated in a 3-yard touchdown run from Jake Groteboer. The Cougars then embarked on another march into Eagles territory, but again were stopped on fourth down, missing crucial points for the second time in the game.
Lourdes went four-and-out on their next possession, and Nolte threw an interception three plays later. The Eagles took a knee into halftime, with the kickoff coming their way to open the second half.
The third quarter opened with nine Lourdes plays, but Z-M stopped Groteboer on 4th-and-1. The Cougars stalled out on their next drive, and were unable to stop Lourdes' increasingly effective ground game after that. Part of which was due to defensive lineman Caden Steffen missing most of the game due to aggravating an injury from the quarterfinal game at Pine Island.
"Losing Caden hurt defensively, but we had guys to step in," Raasch said. "I applaud the effort of everyone on our team. At no point was it, 'Oh, Caden's not in.' There was none of that."
Eagles' quarterback Matthew Hayford, who did not complete a pass, put Lourdes on top for good with a 1-yard sneak with 1:53 on the third-quarter clock. The Eagles' defense then stopped Z-M a third time on fourth down, this time with a sack of Nolte, who finished with 172 yards on 17 of 35 passing, that came on a play that started at the Lourdes' 34-yard line.
Groteboer, who had a game-high 107 yards on 17 carries, scored the final touchdown of the game at 8:13 of the fourth, and the Cougars would again cross the 50 only to have another sack end the drive.
Z-M forced two three-and-outs to keep some hope, but Lourdes picked off Nolte to end one possession, then sealed the game with a fumble recovery with just over a minute to play.
The Cougars end the season 4-6, with the Eagles as bookends on what was a promising season with a roster full of talented seniors.
"I'll be honest, no one likes losing to Lourdes. But the bigger deal is you hate to see the seniors be done. Lourdes, Caledonia, insert opponent here, you feel bad for the young men that are done playing football," Raasch said. "It's a great game, and all the lessons you learn from it are, too."