Elk River Rises, Defeats St. Michael-Albertville in Section Championship
Special teams and defense, two ingredients missing from the Elks' first two playoff wins, were the key in a 24-10 win over the Knights.
With a pass rush in his face, Cole Krutzig faded to fire from his quarterback position, deep in the St. Michael-Albertville end zone.
He never saw the defender coming to read his intended throw.
As Elk River defender Alex Plaisted grabbed the ball out of the air, he put the first nail into the coffin that was the STMA football season. The final nail came one play later, as Elk River punched in a 5-yard touchdown run, sealing a 24-10 victory in the Section 6-5A final.
For the Elks, it was a "rising from the ashes" moment. The program was in complete turmoil just two years ago, when a hazing scandal saw a host of starters suspended from the team for an entire season, and the squad went winless in nine games (including a 50-12 loss to STMA).
Now, they're headed to Osseo for the state quarterfinals, where they'll face St. Thomas Academy, winners of Section 5-5A.
"Hats off to them, really. They beat us on special teams, where they made a lot of plays tonight. And they're defense outplayed our offense. So they won two phases, we won one. We stopped their offense. But that wasn't enough," said head coach Jared Essler, who saw his Knights lose a playoff game at home in their final game for the second straight season.
STMA had its chances. The Knights took a 3-0 lead in the first quarter off a solid drive that saw an effective ground game go to work, led by junior Chris Kartes.
Kartes, who was supposed to be used on defense more this season, stepped in as the team's top tailback when Ryan Lyzhoft, an all-conference back last season, went down with a knee injury.
"Would we have liked to have all our starters back for a game like this," Essler asked. "Yeah. But that's not football. They've had injuries, too. But one or two more and we would have been really thin in a lot of places."
Cole Krutzig, Knights quarterback, was a week removed from a concussion (suffered at the semifinal win in Monticello). The defense was without two starters as well.
But the Knights' defensive line held the Elks in check. Two ERHS scores were set up by big plays - the late interception and a third quarter punt return that set the Elks up at the STMA 15. The first was a 91-yard scamper by Denis Bardashevskiy in the first quarter, which gave the Elks a 6-3 lead.
They'd never look back.
All Bardahevsiy has done is run for 1,000 yards in the Elks' final four games. He had more than 300 last week.
"I thought, other than the one where he got loose, we played great defense," said senior Bennie Wilson. "We've done that all season. We can't hang our heads. We came together and played tough. If I'm going to go out, I'm going to go out with these guys. We just had a great group."
Essler echoed that sentiment.
"We just had a bunch of seniors who worked hard and set a great example. That's why the end is always hard," he said. "We'll look forward to next year, but it's a long ways off right now."
The Knights finish 7-4 on the season and runners up in Section 5-5A.