NEW RICHMOND -- If Friday night was the last time River Falls and New Richmond will ever meet on the football field, they picked a doozy of a game to go out with.
The Wildcats and Tigers combined for 35 points in the fourth quarter and River Falls came back from 14 points down in the final 1 minute, 52 seconds to post a 35-28 victory over the Tigers in the 17th consecutive, and final, season opener between the two teams on the New Richmond Middle School field.
River Falls and New Richmond have a football history that dates back to 1931 when both were charter members of the Middle Border Conference but will end their rivalry next season when the WIAA implements its new statewide realignment plan.
“That was a really good high school football game, no doubt,” third-year River Falls coach David Crail said about the most recent meeting. “Hats off to New Richmond. It was back and forth and back and forth and we had some adversity but we were able to respond.”
The Tigers appeared to have the Wildcats on their heels after scoring two touchdowns in a span of five minutes to take a 28-21 lead. The first came on a 77-yard bomb over the top from Tim Salmon to Caleb Eastep with 10:05 remaining, just two plays after River Falls had made it a 21-21 game on a five-yard keeper by quarterback Peter Noreen.
New Richmond went up 28-21 with just under six minutes left on a three-yard run by Zach Panek. That touchdown was set up by a 57-yard hook-up between Salmon and Jacob Parent. Salmon finished with 296 yards passing and three touchdowns.
The Tigers got the stop they needed when they forced the Wildcats into a three-and-out on the ensuing possession, but River Falls’ James Westhoff fell on the ball when the Tigers muffed the punt return, giving the Wildcats a 1st-and-10 at the Tiger 35 yard-line with 3:32 remaining. Three plays later Seth Kohel scored his third touchdown of the game to tie the score 28-28 with 1:52 left. Kohel carried the ball 37 times and accounted for 260 of the Wildcat's 373 rushing yards in the game.
Salmon threw his only interception of the game on the Tigers ensuing possession when the ball bounced off the hands of Kidder and was snatched out of the air by Wildcat defensive back Samuel Cleveland, who returned it down to the Tiger 23. Three straight carries by Kohel resulted in seven yards before Noreen found tight end Joe Stoffel on fourth down in the end zone for the game-winning touchdown with 19.7 seconds left.
Despite the outcome, second-year New Richmond head coach Reggie Larson said he was proud of the way the Tigers hung with the defending Big Rivers Conference champion Wildcats.
“That was a heck of a high school football game, huh?” he said. “I could not be more proud of our kids. We talked about how we were going to come out and be physical and how we were going to play hard, and we did just that. That’s a heck of a football team over there and we came out and competed.”
Kohel gave River Falls the lead early when he shook off a pair of New Richmond tacklers behind the line of scrimmage and raced 74 yards to paydirt on the Wildcat’s third possession of the game.
New Richmond got an interception from Kidder late in the first half that resulted in a 13-yard touchdown pass from Salmon to Kidder to make it a 7-7 game at halftime.
The Tigers took the second half kickoff and put together a drive that included an 18-yard completion from Salmon to Kidder, and a 19-yard run by Salmon before Salmon found Joe Powers over the top for a 33-yard touchdown to give New Richmond its first lead of the game, 14-7.
River Falls answered with a 64-yard scoring drive that culminated with a nine-yard touchdown run to tie the score 14-14 with five minutes left in the third quarter before the teams combined for 35 points in a wild final frame.
Noreen completed 8 of 15 passes for 74 yards in the win. Four of those passes went to Stoffel for a total of 32 yards.
Crail said he liked the way the Wildcats responded to every punch New Richmond threw.
“We talk about adversity,” he said. “You’re going to face adversity, not only on the football field; it’s going to happen. How do you go about responding to that? I think it says a lot about the way that they responded. They made some big plays when they had to and I’m proud of them.”
Larson said he’s not going to dwell on the what-ifs.
“It’s 28-21 there’s three minutes left and we get the stop we wanted,” he said. “We muff a punt and give up 14 unanswered. Is it the start you want? Absolutely not. And I should have taken a time out there on that last snap when they came out in that tight end boot. I put our kids in a bad position, and I take full responsibility for that. But we know how good a football team we can be. We’re not going to let one game define us. I think we’re going to turn that film on tomorrow and there’s going to be some really exciting things.”
New Richmond will hit the road to play Rice Lake next week while River Falls will host Onalaska in its home opener Friday, Aug. 30.