The Free Press, Mankato, MN

September 27, 2013

Sometimes, going to work can be blessing


The Mankato Free Press

---- — There have been many blessings in life.

A lovely, intelligent and understanding wife. Two beautiful daughters who only occasionally spike the blood pressure. A golf game that’s better than most peers.

And a job that, while not as lucrative as it once was, rarely puts any body parts in jeopardy of injury.

The job also sometimes provides up-close access to games and athletes at their finest, which has been the case during the last couple of weeks. For the few people who were privileged to witnessed both the high-school football game between Mankato West and Owatonna, followed by the college game between Minnesota State and Minnesota Duluth, you understand.

A high-school football game is a special event, almost regardless of the quality of the teams competing. It’s one of the few occasions that brings a school and community together, enjoying a couple of hours under the stadium lights, loudly encouraging the local lads, who despite their flaws, give the effort you wish you saw from players at every level.

Throw in the hype surrounding the Week 3 game between Mankato West and Owatonna, and there’s a chance for something special.

Which is what happened.

The first state polls had just been released, and Owatonna, coming off a state runnerup finish in 2012 and a pair of easy victories, was No. 1 in Class AAAAA, followed by the Scarlets. The anticipation was that Owatonna would try to dominate with its punishing ground game, while West would counter with quick strikes from quarterback Ryan Schlichte and his quick receivers.

Funny thing ... this wasn’t the Owatonna team of past successful seasons. The Huskies were an efficient passing team, with some top-notch receivers. And West showed some ability to run with power.

An early turnover hurt West and allowed Owatonna to score first, but the Scarlets were up 14-7 at halftime. Owatonna changed tactics in the second half, running the ball between the tackles, to go up 21-14, but West answered with the tying touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Owatonna ended up winning on a last-play field goal, but both teams were able to leave the field feeling good about the future. If things go right for both teams, they could meet again in a state-championship game, but there are no guarantees.

Even if it happened, the teams would be hard-pressed to duplicate excitement of this contest.

It’s tough to say how far you’d drive to see a good college football game. Three hours to TCF Bank Stadium seems like too much for most of the games played in the history of that building.

But last Saturday, an 8-hour round trip to Duluth was a small inconvenience for the 2 1/2 hours of quality small-college football.

Minnesota State was the No. 2 team in Division II, but there’s still a championship aura about Minnesota Duluth, which was ranked No. 7. The Bulldogs had won 41 straight regular-season home games, and despite the Mavericks’ success last season, the Bulldogs still seemed like a slight favorite.

The Bulldogs were the better team early, going up 10-0, but the Mavericks got their ground attack going in the second quarter to lead 14-10 at halftime. Minnesota Duluth had a 90-yard drive to open the third quarter, but then the Mavericks created turnovers on the next three possessions, taking advantage of one short field to go ahead 21-17.

The fourth quarter was scoreless, but that doesn’t mean it lacked drama. The defense made some big plays, while the offenses tried to control the clock and move the ball. Finally, the Bulldogs had their last possession.

Moving smartly down the field in the last 6 minutes, Minnesota Duluth had first-and-goal from the 5 with just over a minute remaining.

Two rushing plays lost six yards, and a false start penalty moved the ball back to the 16.

On third down, the Bulldogs quarterback threw a quick slant to the receiver, who split the defensive backs into the end zone for the apparent go-ahead touchdown with 41 seconds to play. But a holding penalty nullified the score and put the ball at the 26.

Another incompletion brought up fourth down. The quarterback broke the pocket and rolled right, seemingly with all the time he needed to find a receiver in the end zone, despite eight Mavericks defenders in that 4,800 square feet.

Unable to run, the quarterback lofted a pass toward the corner, and there were five or six sets of arms reaching toward the football.

Above them all, Minnesota State safety Jordan Hale batted the ball away, setting off the Mavericks’ celebration.

Then came the four-hour ride home, dodging traffic and slipping through the many construction zones, happy that most of the cars were in their garages, resting comfortably.

It was also time to think about the blessings.

Chad Courrier is a Free Press staff writer. To contact him, call 507-344-6353, e-mail at ccourrier@mankatofreepress.com or follow his Twitter feed @ChadCourrier.