|9/6/2013 2:49:00 PM|
Mother Nature brings a halt to North Branch's misery
Lightning shortens the Vikes' opener to a single half of football, a 42-7 drubbing
by JEFF NORTON
When the first schedule came out for the Mississippi 8 Conference football season, North Branch Head Coach Nick Nitti figured he’d be seeing a lot of black and blue. The Vikings opened the season against the Rogers Royals, who are not only clad in the bruising colors, but have been at the head of the M8C for the last half decade, running up a 37-7 record in four years. They’ve won the last three conference championships and earned two state tournament berths in the process. Add that all up, and it was bound to be a long night for North Branch, despite the eventual reprieve they got from Mother Nature.
Rogers received the opening kickoff and started the first drive of the 2013 football season. The Vikings defense, led by safety Brandon Thauwald and defensive end Michael Hensch, quickly forced Rogers into a third down where the Royals went to the air. Under pressure, Rogers quarterback Connor Henderson lofted a high floater in the middle of the field, 25 yards downfield -- juicy pickings for the North Branch defensive backs. Three Viking DB’s converged on the ball’s landing spot, where Rogers’ Nathan Hajder was standing, but when the scrum was separated, it was Hajder, and not one of boys in red, that had the ball in his hands. That early play was indicative of how things were going to go for North Branch that night.
The Royals’ promptly finished that drive off and scored, making it 7-0 after the successful point after. North Branch took over close to midfield after a rousing kick return from Jack Tholen, but their offense, a similar version to last year’s rush-heavy attack, couldn’t get any traction, going three and out. On the second Rogers’ drive, the Vikings defense again pushed the Royals to third down, this time third and three near midfield. Rogers went back to the basics on the play, using the hard snap count to draw North Branch defenders offsides, giving them a free first down. The mental error deflated the Vikings defense on that drive, and Rogers quickly sliced through them to bring the ball to the goalline. North Branch’s defense managed to force Rogers into a third and goal, but Adam Heyer of the Royals punched the ball in from the three yard line for his second touchdown of the game.
The PAT gave them a 14-0 lead late in the first quarter. On North Branch’s ensuing drive, they again failed to earn a first down, having to punt the ball away again after three plays. This time, though, the result was disastrous. Gunnar Bloom fielded the punt at his own 40-yard line and dance his way around the Vikings’ coverage team, scoring a 60-yard punt return for a touchdown, stretching Rogers’ lead to 21-0 before the first quarter had even expired. The North Branch offense, breaking in many new players in key positions, was able to get going a bit on their third drive. They gained two first downs on the legs of quarterback Tony Denn and running back Eli Chouinard, but the drive stalled and North Branch had to punt again.
This Royals’ possession, though, gave the Vikings their lone glimmer of hope in the game. After Rogers had too many men downfield on an early pass play, the Vikings defense forced them into a third and long. When Henderson dropped back to pass and a screen started to develop in front of him, Hensch read it perfectly and lay in wait until he tried to drop it off to his running back. Hensch stepped in front of the screen pass and weaved his way through the Rogers tacklers, returning the pick nearly 50 yards to the two yard line of Rogers. Denn punched the ball in for North Branch’s first touchdown of the season, cutting the lead to 21-7 with six minutes left before halftime. But, two minutes late, Nate Weber took a counter handoff and went 35 yard to paydirt, quickly thwarting North Branch’s momentum.
The Vikes’ offense stalled out the rest of the half, and that led to a 27-yard touchdown run from Bloom and another punt return touchdown from him, this one of the 53-yard variety. The scores gave Rogers a 42-7 halftime lead. As the dancers performed during the 20 minute halftime and the young kids took the field for their mock game, spectators could see lightning in the distance.
Despite no rain and the seemingly far-away lightning, North Branch’s public address announcer came belting out that the start of the second of the half would be delayed by a half hour because of lightning nearby. The game had already started an hour late at 8 p.m. because of the heat, and that meant the game wouldn’t resume until nearly 10 p.m. As that half hour clock was winding down, there was another lightning strike close enough to cause a delay. Just after 10 p.m., the game was called due to weather, leaving the final tally at 42-7 in favor of Rogers. The Royals accumulated 217 yards in that half, as well as the two special teams touchdowns, while North Branch only had 64 yards of total offense. Chouinard led the Vikings with 35 yards rushing while Kodie Koolmo had 13 and Denn had 10.
Things don’t get much easier for North Branch in their second week. They’ll travel to Monticello on Friday, Sept. 6. The Magic won their season opener against Princeton 20-6, and they were 7-2 last year and finished second in the M8C.