By Brady Ambrose
Fueled by big plays from their defense, special teams and the strong right leg of the “magic man” the Caledonia Warriors put the finishing touches on an undefeated season with a thrilling, 25-22 win over Moose Lake/Willow River in the Class AA Prep Bowl championship game Friday at the Metrodome.
The win not only capped a perfect season, it was also the third straight AA championship for the Warriors (13-0), who staged a dramatic, last second win over the Rebels (13-1) as Levi Schmitz connected on a 24 yard field goal as time expired to give the Warriors their 26th straight win and fifth state title in the last six years.
Schmitz, who coach Brent Schroeder says is, “In better shape than any other player in Minnesota,” hit the game-winning field goal after Caledonia put together a drive that covered 40 yards in a little over three minutes to the Rebels’ seven yard line.
“I asked pretty much every coach on our sideline when we were down, I had a very good feeling, confidence that we were going to score again,” Schroeder said of the series of events that led to the kick, including Alex Varney’s 14 yard interception return for a touchdown that tied the game at 22 all with 5:45 left in the game.
Schroeder said they contemplated one point or two on the extra point, but he and the staff decided to tie the game with an extra point instead of going for the lead with a two point conversion try after Varney’s pick-six. “I didn’t feel real comfortable going into overtime with those guys and the defensive stand after that was huge. When we got the ball back and with the way coach Fruechte put that offensive drive together at the end and the way our kids responded to that pressure because it was as high as it could possibly get, those kids didn’t make one mistake in those last 30 yards, it was unbelievable.”
It was without a doubt Caledonia’s biggest challenge of the entire season. Moose Lake/Willow River, ranked #2 in the state and also undefeated, tore off a pair of quick-strike scoring plays to take control midway through the third quarter. Jake Disterhaupt scored on a 71 yard run with 6:50 left in the quarter to tie the game at 15-15 and after a Caledonia punt Rebel quarterback Tony Adamczak hit Isaac Coil with an 84 yard strike that gave Moose Lake/Willow River a 22-15 lead going into the fourth quarter.
Caledonia took an early lead midway through the first quarter on Brad Strub’s one yard touchdown run that capped a three play, 20 yard drive that started with Adam Buttell’s 30 yard punt return from midfield.
Caledonia quarterback Alex Varney hit Jacob Swindell with a 15 yard completion on first down, and two plays later Strub scored the first of his two touchdowns from a yard out to give the Warriors a 6-0 lead with 7:38 left in the first quarter. But the Rebels wasted little time in regaining the lead. After a Varney pass was intercepted by Ben Moonen at the Moose Lake 43, Moonen returned the pick all the way to the Caledonia 14 yard line. Five plays later Disterhaupt scored from two yards out and Moonen added the extra point to give the Rebels a 7-6 lead at the end of the first quarter. The Warriors regained the lead on Schmitz’s 36 yard field goal with 7:06 left in the first half that was highlighted by Strub’s 26 yard run on the first play of the drive.
The two teams traded punts on their next possessions with Schmitz pinning the Rebels at their own 13 yard line with a 39 yard punt. Adamczak then threw three straight incomplete passes, all to Coil and Moose Lake was forced to punt again.
A poor punt by Disterhaupt that only traveled 29 yards, and a 17 yard return from Buttell gave the Warriors great field position at the Rebel 25 yard line with 1:40 left in the first half and on the first play from scrimmage Varney hit Strub in the corner of the end zone with a 25 yard strike that took just seven seconds. Schmitz then intercepted Adamczak’s pass on the Rebel’s first play from scrimmage, and Caledonia was in business again this time at the Caledonia 34 yard line, but the half ended with the Warriors leading 15-7.
“We’re going to put as much time into it (special teams play) as we have to,” Schroeder said. “It’s huge. I thought we really worked a little harder on punt returns this week and Adam did a great job catching the ball in a very tough environment, and the guys did a great job blocking on those.”
Moose Lake/Willow River then used two long scoring plays to take control in the third quarter. On their second possession the Rebels again were pinned deep in their own territory after a 47 yard punt from Schmitz. Starting at their 14 yard line, Michael Pender gained seven yards on two carries and B.J. Young bolted eight yards to the 29 for a first down. On the next play Disterhaupt, one of 10 finalists for the Minnesota Mr. Football award, raced 71 yards for a touchdown and Pender added a two-point conversion to tie the game at 15-15 with 6:50 left in the quarter.
Caledonia’s next drive stalled at the 42, but Schmitz again got off a great kick that pushed Moose Lake/Willow River back to their 13 yard line. On third and seven at the 16 Adamczak and Coil finally connected, and the result was an 84 yard touchdown run that put the Rebels in the lead at 22-15 with 2:41 to play in the third quarter.
“Defensively I felt very good about our defense in the first half,” Schroeder said. “I felt like we were two plays ahead of their offensive coordinator the whole time. They just had two big plays that they broke and we could tell we had to change some things up. I told the kids we had to get to work right now.”
Caledonia took over at their own 35 with 2:39 left in the quarter. Ryan Pitts picked up six yards, but a holding penalty pushed the Warriors back to the 24. Varney then hit Alex Goetzinger with a 20 yard completion to the 44 and Caledonia moved into Rebel territory at the 45 as time expired in the third quarter. On the first play of the quarter Varney rumbled 14 yards to the 31 and then picked up seven more yards to the 24.
A four yard gain by Pitts gave the Warriors a first down at the 20, but Pitts was tackled for a four yard loss on the next play. Caledonia then got a an offensive boost from an unlikely source when Zach Kasten lined up in the backfield, took a handoff from Varney and rumbled 13 yards to the 11 yard line. But the Rebels then mounted a great defensive stand. Varney picked up a first down to the 10 and Kasten was held to one yard on the next run. Varney then hit Jacob Swindell with a six yard completion to the three yard line. On third and goal Strub was tackled for no gain, and the Warriors called a timeout. On fourth and goal at the three yard line Varney was held to a one yard gain, and the Rebels took over on downs at their own two yard line with 7:02 to play. But the Caledonia defense made a big play of their own. On second and eight from the four Kasten tackled Disterhaupt for a two yard loss, forcing a third and 10 from the two yard line. Alex Varney then intercepted an Adamczak pass that was tipped in the air at the 14 yard line and raced into the end zone for the game-tying touchdown with 5:45 left in the game.
Moose Lake/Willow River took over on their own 13 yard line after an illegal block in the back penalty on the kickoff. Disterhaupt and Pender teamed up for a first down out to the 25 yard line with 4:34 to play, but the Rebels were forced to punt when an Adamczak pass fell incomplete.
As had been the case most of the game, Caledonia got great field position after Disterhaupt could muster up just a 22 yard punt that put the Warriors in business for the game-winning drive at the Rebel 47 with 3:11 left in the game. On third and three at the 40 Varney picked up just enough to keep the Caledonia drive going with a first down to the Moose Lake 37, and on second and nine Varney gained six more to the 30.
On third and three Varney came up with another big run when he broke loose for a 15 yard gain to the Rebel 15. With the clock ticking toward zero Pitts picked up eight yards on back-to-back carries and the Warriors called a timeout with just one second on the clock, setting up Schmitz for the dramatic finish. “I started calling timeout with four or five seconds left,” Schroeder said. The Rebels then called a time out to try and ice Schmitz, but the Warrior senior split the uprights as time expired to give the Warriors their third straight Prep Bowl championship.
The win puts Caledonia in the history books as the first AA team to win three straight titles. The defense held Disterhaupt to just 91 yards on 14 carries, with 71 of them coming on his touchdown run. The Rebel senior finishes his prep career with 4,607 yards rushing and 79 touchdowns.
The undefeated Warriors rolled up 327 total yards of offense, led by Brad Strub’s 76 rushing yards and 25 passing yards and a pair of touchdowns. Zach Kasten led the Warrior defense with eight solo tackles, while Jacob Swindell added five. With the win Caledonia football says goodbye to 10 seniors, including Varney, Kasten, Strub, Swindell, Jacob Dolle, Collin Coffield, Sam Barton, Kevin Lapham, Jeremy DeWall and Schmitz.
“We’ll be doing some work with our offensive and defensive lines,” Schroeder said looking ahead to next season. “The good thing about the kids coming back is that they are going to be a little green. It will take a little time, but they are going to be there in the end.”
Schroeder said Sunday during the community celebration that he saw the potential of the team in the first game this season against Plainview-Elgin-Millville, but he wasn’t thinking undefeated season. “I knew P-E-M was going to be decent. I knew what they had, I knew Chatfield was like they were, Rushford really gave us a run and we had good competition in the rest of our Three Rivers games, it just gets us ready. The tournament road there wasn’t a week one in the bunch. I asked my son what we had to do to win a state championship. He’s four and he said, ‘Work hard,’ and that’s exactly what this group has done.”
MSHSL CLASS AA
MOOSE LAKE/WILLOW RIVER 22
Caledonia 6 9 0 10 — 25
ML/WR 7 0 15 0 — 22
C—Strub 1 run (kick failed) 7:38.
ML/WR—Disterhaupt 2 run (Moonen kick) 2:12.
C—FG Schmitz 36 7:06.
C—Strub 25 pass from Varney kick blocked) 1:33.
ML/WR—Disterhaupt 71 run (Pender run) 6:50.
ML/WR—Coil 84 pass from Adamczyk (Moonen kick) 2:41.
C—Varney 14 interception return (Schmitz kick) 5:45.
C—FG Schmitz 24 :00.
First downs 15 6
Rushes-Yards 49-196 33-149
Comp-Att-Int 9-17-1 1-10-2
Passing yards 131 84
Total yards 327 233
Penalties-Yards 3-20 3-22
Fumbles-Lost 1-0 0-0
Rushing: C—Strub 16-76, Varney 15-64, Pitts 15-39, Kasten 2-14, Buttell 1-3; ML/WR—Disterhaupt 14-91, Pender 14-42, Young 2-9, Gassert 3-7.
Passing: C—Varney 9-16-1-131, Kasten 0-1-0-0; ML/WR—Adamczyk 1-10-2-84.
Receiving: C—Pitts 1-36, Goetzinger 2-35, Strub 1-25, Swindell 3-22, Buttell 2-13; ML/WR—Coil 1-84.
Records: C 13-0; ML/WR 13-1.