FARGO — Mahnomen-Waubun needed 5 yards for a victory and the co-op's first Minnesota Class 1A, Section 8 football championship Thursday at the Fargodome. The ball was at midfield, the Thunderbirds were holding on to an eight-point lead and they were looking at a fourth-and-5.
M-W coach John Clark called a timeout with a little over two minutes remaining. There's no way he was punting the ball.
"That's our mentality," Clark said. "We're aggressive, we believe in our offensive line, we have playmakers. Thought we could get it to be honest with you. That's who we are. We believe in our offense, and if we don't make it, we believe in our defense."
Clark told senior running back Parker Syverson to go score a touchdown. That's exactly what he did, breaking three tackles to pick up the first down and then going to the end zone for a 55-yard touchdown run to seal a 35-20 win over Polk County West.
"My main thing was to pick up a first down," said Syverson, who rushed for 210 yards and three touchdowns on 32 carries Thursday. "I'm speechless right now. That was incredible. I don't even know what to say right now.
A section that had belonged to Mahnomen for the previous eight seasons now belongs to Mahnomen-Waubun. The Thunderbirds had not been truly tested all season, entering Thursday having given up six points in the second half and punting four times all season. PCW gave the No. 3-ranked Thunderbirds (10-0) a run for their money. The Thunderbirds had beaten the Thunder 34-0 earlier in the season as well.
"I gotta tip my hat to them," Syverson said. "They played outstanding today. We weren't expecting anything like that."
The first half was a bit strange. The Thunder and Thunderbirds fumbled on their first possessions. By the end of the first quarter the Thunderbirds had a 6-0 lead and the longest play for the Thunder was one in which their quarterback fumbled and offensive lineman Myles Smith picked it up and ran for 11 yards. A Thunder pass also hit off the face of M-W defensive lineman Justin Littlewolf and into the hands of teammate Chandler Toczek for an interception.
"It was a weird game," Clark said. "We made a lot of mistakes. I think Polk County West had a lot to do with that, but we made some mental mistakes that this team shouldn't be making at this time. They're still high school kids and when they make a mistake they get down on themselves and it just snowballed a little bit. We made a play when we had to."
What was consistent in the first half was Jon Starkey and Syverson. As they have done all season for the Thunderbirds, the duo was there to dictate the pace of the game, even with the early weirdness. Starkey rushed for 112 yards and a touchdown on nine carries, while Syverson added 105 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries in the first half.
Starkey scored from 1 yard out with 41 seconds left in the first quarter, while Syverson added 1-yard touchdown plunges with 4 minutes, 49 seconds and 45 seconds remaining in the first half to put the Thunderbirds up 20-0.
Polk County West's Sam Modeen hit Evan Sczepanski for a 20-yard touchdown pass to cut the lead to 20-7 on the first drive of the second half. M-W answered with a 14-play drive that took nearly seven minutes off the clock. On fourth-and-4, Starkey carved the PCW defense for a 15-yard touchdown run. Thunderbirds added the two-point conversion and were back up 28-7. Sczepanski answered quickly, returning the ensuing kick 85 yards for a touchdown to bring the Thunder back within 14.
PCW (8-3) would not go away. John Fontaine cut the M-W lead to eight with a 5-yard touchdown run on fourth-and-2 with 3:10 remaining. The Thunder could not recover the onside kick and Syverson made them pay.
"I didn't feel down on myself one bit in the second half," Syverson said. "We stuck together amazingly. That's Thunderbird football right there. Stick together and good things will happen."