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In a literal game of inches, Chatfield football survives West Central Area-Ashby in championship game

Friday's Class AA title game came down to an overturned 2-point conversion call after replay.

MINNEAPOLIS — Players for the West Central Area-Ashby football team had just accepted their runner-up trophy at U.S. Bank Stadium after a 14-13 loss to Chatfield in the Class AA championship on Friday when head coach Nate Wood gathered his guys in a huddle on the sidelines.

Tears were on most of his players’ faces. In that moment, athletes naturally feel disappointment in a game that did not go their way that certainly could have.

“There’s nothing to hang your head over in a game like that,” Wood said. “You leave everything out there and let the chips fall where they may. Football is a game of inches, and we came up literally an inch short in this game.”

There is no hyperbole there from Wood. The state championship between the Knights (11-2) and Gophers (13-1) did come down to inches on a 2-point conversion play for WCA-Ashby in the final minutes.

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Senior quarterback Evan Paulson scored a touchdown on a 1-yard run with 3:51 left in the game to get within one point at 14-13. Paulson had successfully kicked an extra point on WCA-Ashby’s only other touchdown in the game — a 30-yard pass from Paulson to senior receiver Cole Anderson in the first quarter.

Wood thought about trying for the tie after that fourth-quarter touchdown, but he called a timeout to get his players' thoughts.

“I wanted these guys to tell me what they wanted to do,” Wood said. “I trust them. Playing for overtime was an option, but we all felt, ‘Let’s go for the win.’”

The Knights gave the ball to their best ball carrier all season, junior Anthony Sykora. He followed his blocks to the right before cutting up toward the goal line where he was met by Chatfield defenders. Sykora reached the ball toward the goal line as he went down.

Officials hesitated with a call but eventually did rule on the field that Sykora’s conversion was good to give the Knights a 15-14 lead. Video capability in the championship game allows the referees to look at instant replay. They did that and overturned the call on the field after seeing that Sykora was down just shy of the goal line.

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That was part of replay playing a huge factor in Friday’s game. The Knights were able to score on that drive after a call was overturned in their favor. Senior running back Mattson Hoff was stripped of the football on a carry as Chatfield’s Eli Hopp scooped up the recovery and went 70 yards for what he thought was a touchdown. Officials overturned that call too after ruling that Hoff was already down before the ball came out.

“I think replay showed today how valuable it is, for both sides,” Wood said. “Both calls on the field were overturned once they were slowed down and looked at. It shows that it’s a really good thing for the title game to have that ability.”

The Knights got a stop on the Gophers’ next offensive possession to get the ball back one last time with 1:20 left and no timeouts. They took it all the way from their own 6-yard line to near midfield, but the Gophers’ Isaac Erding intercepted a Paulson deep ball to secure Chatfield’s fifth state title in program history.

West Central Area-Ashby had two takeaways on interceptions from sophomore Nas Dotts and senior Hunter Norby, but the Gophers created five total turnovers on three interceptions and two fumble recoveries.

One of those fumbles went for a touchdown as Carter Daniels returned a ball that popped out right into his arms before running 31 yards for the score. That gave the Gophers the lead back at 14-7 in the second quarter after the 2-point conversion.

“That’s a testament to our kids’ heart where we were lucky to even be in this game with as many turnovers as there were and breaks that didn’t go our way and weird things that happened,” Wood said. “To end it in a 1-point game, that’s a testament to how hard we played today.”

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The Gophers came into the game after a dramatic week of not knowing whether or not their star quarterback, junior Sam Backer, would play or not. Backer, who rushed for 39 touchdowns and more than 2,000 yards this season, was ejected from Chatfield’s semifinal win over Barnesville on Nov. 18 after two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Minnesota State High School League rules state that any player ejected by officials during a game is also suspended for the next scheduled contest.

Backer was ruled out for Friday’s championship. His family filed a lawsuit early in the week, requesting a temporary restraining order that would allow him to play in the state championship game while he appealed the game officials' ruling. The suspension was upheld by a U.S. District Court judge before Friday’s game.

“We really were just focused on what we were going to do,” Wood said. “I understand there was a lot of things going on, but for us it was probably less of a distraction. We just focus on what we do, and we respect Chatfield either way, whether they play with their starting quarterback or without.”

Sophomore Parker Delaney started at quarterback for the Gophers as a WCA-Ashby defense that has led this team during the state playoffs limited him to 67 yards on 5-of-13 passing.

“It’s satisfying. There’s no other way to put it,” Chatfield head coach Jeff Johnson said of getting the title after the adversity of the past week. “Our kids grind hard. They run, they tackle, they’re physical. Most of them weren’t born with that. They worked their tails off. Everyone bought in.”

Chatfield ran for 143 yards on 38 carries, but the Gophers’ defense is what made things so difficult on the Knights. They held WCA-Ashby to 68 yards rushing on 31 carries. Paulson hit some big plays in the passing game and finished 15-of-29 for 203 yards.

“We have to take our hats off to Chatfield,” Wood said. “They are very, very good up front. I thought we adjusted a little better in the second half, but the credit goes to them for having a great game plan and being really physical with us.”

WCA-Ashby seniors Mattson Hoff, Ryder Staples, Carson Spangler and Hunter Norby held back tears as best they could as they joined Wood at the postgame press conference minutes after the game.

“My brothers,” Staples said when asked what he’ll remember most about this season. “They’ve all been here for me along the way. Since like 3rd, 4th grade, we’ve all just been one team. Haven’t thought of it as two different schools.”

Norby called the state playoff run to the championship that included wins over Moose Lake-Willow River and Maple River the best two weeks of his life. That’s what a team sport like football can mean to the coaches and athletes who come together for a season like this.

West Central Area had made the state tournament in football twice before this season, finishing as the Class AA runner-up in 1999. This is now the second time in the last five years that WCA and Ashby have made state together after going in 2017.

“We had a lot of senior starters, but the younger kids are going to step up,” Spangler said. “West Central has never really been in this situation. We got here, and hopefully next year they’ll do better and get the win.”

The Knights are one of the best programs in Section 6AA right now. Staying there is never easy, but this group set a blueprint for future teams to follow.

“In August, if you would have told me we’d be in the state title game I would have thought you were crazy,” Hoff said. “I’m not going to lie. I just hope (the younger kids in the program) understand that if you put your mind to it, put your whole heart into it and believe it, you can do it too. It is possible.”

CHATFIELD 6 8 0 0 - 14

WCA-ASHBY 7 0 0 6 - 13

TOTALS - WCA-ASHBY - Total offense - 61-289; First downs - 12; Rushing - 31-68; Passing - 16-30, 221 yards; CHATFIELD - Total offense - 52-210; First downs - 12; Rushing - 38-143; Passing - 5-14, 67 yards

WCA-ASHBY OFFENSE - PASSING - Evan Paulson - 15-29, 203 yards, TD, 3 INT; Anthony Sykora - 1-1, 18 yards; RECEIVING - Hunter Norby - 4-71; Cole Anderson - 4-67, TD; Mattson Hoff - 4-33; Sykora - 3-33; Ryder Staples - 1-17; RUSHING - Sykora - 21-63; Hoff - 1-5; Norby - 6-1; Paulson - 3-(-1)

WCA-ASHBY DEFENSE - Norby - 8 tackles, INT; Colton Lindquist - 6 tackles; Reubens Swanson, 6 tackles; Nas Dotts - 6 tackles, INT, 0.5 TFL; Hoff - 5 tackles, 1 TFL; Sykora - 4 tackles, 1 TFL; Beau Robinson - 4 tackles, 1 TFL; Tyler Stone - 4 tackles, 1 TFL; Torin Olson - 4 tackles; Anderson - 3 tackles; Brady Lindquist - 3 tackles, 0.5 TFL; Adam Lohse - 2 tackles; Carson Spangler - 2 tackles; Isaac Kreft - 1 tackle

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