ELLSWORTH — For the first time in seven years, Ellsworth hosted a playoff game. The WIAA Division 3 matchup against Somerset came on the heels of the Panthers undefeated 6-0 regular season in which they were crowned conference champions.
Coincidentally, the last time Ellsworth hit the football field was a 33-8 victory over Somerset two weeks ago. In the Oct. 30 matchup between the teams, Max Grand had an incredible performance to lead the Panthers’ offense with 264 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Fast-forward two weeks and Grand managed to one-up his last time out with another historic performance.
On Friday, Grand put together 333 total yards from scrimmage — 294 yards rushing and 39 yards receiving. And, of course, he added an extra touchdown this time around to give him five.
“Max has definitely turned into a special player for us,” Ellsworth head football coach Rob Heller said. “If we just keep feeding that kid the ball, he’s going to make plays — he’s very explosive.”
Grand and the Ellsworth offense went to work early as he scored on a 67-yard touchdown run on the second play of the game. The two-point conversion was successful and Ellsworth was up 8-0 less than one minute into play.
On Somerset’s first possession, Caleb Melvin fumble on their second play. Shane Lange recovered the ball for Ellsworth, and the Panthers began to show all the signs of running away with the game before it barely started.
The Somerset defense held firm, however and forced a three-and-out. From there, the defenses controlled the game as both teams traded three-and-out drives before Somerset fumbled for the second time on its third possession.
Ellsworth wasn’t about to let another forced turnover lead to a scoreless drive this time around, however.
Starting at their own 31-yard line, Ellsworth ran the ball on 10 consecutive plays as Grand capped the drive off with his second touchdown of the night on a 21-yard run.
Trailing 16-0, Somerset was forced into another three-and-out and Ellsworth started the second quarter with the ball at their own 6-yard line. Somerset’s defense did its job by forcing Ellsworth to punt deep in its own zone and regained possession with the ball at their own 40-yard line.
The Spartans marched all the way down to the Ellsworth 10-yard line but failed to convert a fourth and 3, giving Ellsworth the ball back. Mason Anderson then hit Ryan Matzek for a 37-yard pass which set up Grand’s third touchdown on the next play when he took an Anderson pass 39 yards to the end zone.
Somerset ran the remainder of the time off the clock to end the half and Ellsworth took a 24-0 lead into the break.
“It took us a little while to get going. I wish we would’ve taken advantage of the turnovers a little more earlier in the game but the kids came out and did exactly what we talked about,” Heller said. “We knew they were going to try to keep the ball away from us and try to shorten the game up on their end. The defense did a great job keeping those guys off the scoreboard.”
Somerset started the second half much like it did the first — fumbling and giving Ellsworth the ball. The Panthers took advantage of the turnover with a 12-yard Jack Janke touchdown run to increase their lead to 30-0. After another Somerset three-and-out, Ellsworth padded its lead after Grand’s fourth score of the day on a 17-yard touchdown run.
With a 36-0 lead, play began to get a little chippy as frustration began to mount on the field.
After Janke’s first score, he was called for unsportsmanlike behavior and was penalized again later after arguing with a ref about a non-call on what looked to be a hold. On Somerset’s side, there were some questionable late hits that weren’t called.
“When we get up in a game like that, we got to do a good job of keeping cool heads and doing the things that we can control,” Heller said. “We can’t control what those guys are going to do, but it did get a little chippy.”
Part of that mounting frustration was the decision to play the game on Friday rather than postponing it until Saturday. Ellsworth had 13 players in quarantine that would have been eligible to play had the game been shifted back one day. Instead, Somerset declined to move the game back, which gave those Ellsworth players in the game extra motivation to play for teammates not there.
“I think we were a little irritated that in a season like this where there’s special circumstances that they chose to still play Friday and take the opportunity away from those kids,” Heller said. “You only get so many of those in your high school career and a lot of kids lost an opportunity to play football tonight. It was really unfortunate.”
With the win, Ellsworth advances to the second round of the shortened playoff bracket. The Panthers will host Northwestern on Thursday for the final game of the season.
Anderson went 4-of-6 with 117 passing yards and one touchdown. Grand led the team with 294 yards and four touchdowns on 24 carries. Lange added another 43 yards rushing on seven carries.
Janke caught two passes for 41 yards, while Matzek had one reception for 37 yards and Grand caught one pass for a 39-yard touchdown.
Northwestern 14, St. Croix Central 0
Baldwin-Woodville 50, Altoona 6
Prescott defeated Amery (forfeit)
Spring Valley 47, Unity 8
Grantsburg 38, Durand 30
Cadott defeated Ladysmith (forfeit)
Cameron defeated Colfax (forfeit)