PINE ISLAND - The Section 1AAA tournament is as wide-open as it has been in years. That made Tuesday's game between fifth-seeded Zumbrota-Mazeppa and fourth-seeded Pine Island more intriguing than it may have been in past seasons.
Top-seeded Rochester Lourdes, like every other team in the bracket, is flawed and beatable. This is not the year where the winner of the 4/5 game is sacrificial lamb. And neither the Cougars nor Panthers played like it.
A physical game played in temperatures that approached freezing, and with a cross-field wind that bit into flesh and the passing game, ended with a dramatic fourth-down stop for Z-M, and a 15-9 victory that puts the Cougars into Saturday's showdown with Lourdes.
"They ran the ball well, they straight-up pounded it on us," said Z-M head coach Darin Raasch. "That was Z-M/Pine Island football, that's the way it always goes. There's no records in this."
Jacob Bennett scored on the third play of the second quarter on a 3-yard run, giving the Cougars a 7-0 lead after Tyler Grudem's kick.
As they would all game, Pine Island turned to Josh Navratil in a push to tie before halftime, but the final drive stalled at the 4-yard line, and Keegan Majerus kicked a 21-yard field goal as time expired after three-straight incompletions forced the try.
"We outgained them by a large margin, but we just didn't make plays when we needed to," said Pine Island head coach John Stapleton. "Hats off to them."
A scoreless third preceded Alec Jarosinski's 14-yard touchdown run to put the Panthers up 9-7 just six seconds into the final frame.
Z-M then turned to its passing game, with quarterback Isaiah Nolte completing 3 of 5 passes for 12 yards, including a 4-yard score to Jacob Niebuhr with 7:23 to play.
"We thought we could get those short routes, but I was surprised we couldn't get some deeper ones," Raasch said. "
Pine Island got the ball back, and started what looked like would be a game-winning drive. Navratil, who finished with 205 yards on 41 carries, got the ball eight times and gained 43 yards to put the Panthers on the Z-M 33-yard line.
The Cougars, who had given up first downs on all five of its previous third- and fourth-down chances to stop the Panthers with two yards or less to gain, then came up with the biggest play of the game. Nathan Mensink came through and hit Navratil short on fourth-and-two, and several of his teammates cleaned up to force a turnover on downs and clinch the win.
"Our boys rallies. We shot the gaps and we stuck him," Raasch said. "It's fun to watch the joy in the kids' eyes when you make that stop."
Bennett finished with 90 yards on 13 carries, while Nolte hit 11 of 20 passes for 90 yards. Niebuhr's 55 yards on six receptions were both game-highs. Navratil added 47 yards on two catches, with Majerus finishing 4 of 13 for 62 yards and a pair of interceptions.
Pine Island (4-5) dominated the stat sheet, with advantages in total yards (311-231), plays (63-44), time of possession (28:06-19:54) and third-down completion percentage (70.6-62.5).
But points are all that matter, so it's Z-M who gets a second chance to take out Lourdes, who beat the Cougars 22-19 in the first game of the season at Rochester Regional Stadium, where Saturday's rematch will take place.
"They weren't consistently driving, and we made some adjustments and got some stops," Stapleton said. "But we couldn't get those last few plays that we needed."
The Eagles (7-2) barely escaped eighth-seeded La Crescent (1-8) on Tuesday, advancing by a 17-14 score. Add in a 28-22 upset from sixth-seeded Plainview-Elgin-Millville (3-6) over third-seeded Stewartville (5-4), and the section still appears to be a toss-up, despite second-seeded Byron (6-3) dominating seventh-seeded Dover-Eyota (2-7), 40-0.
"After the Lourdes game, we told (the team) to keep their heads up and look through the windshield. The section is wide open," Raasch said. "I'm really happy for our guys. There's a lot of work that goes into this, and we deserve the chance as much as anybody, and I'm glad they get to see the fruits of their labor."