ELLSWORTH — Finishing a season undefeated is something few football teams can tout at the end of a season. Last year only three such teams could claim that achievement in Wisconsin. Although more teams were able to put perfect records in the history books in this COVID-shortened season, Ellsworth was one of the few that could lay claim to the accomplishment this fall.
Ellsworth put the finishing touches on their perfect season Thursday with a 42-14 thrashing of Northwestern in a WIAA Division 3 Level 2 game. In addition to tripling the Tigers score, Ellsworth also nearly doubled their total yardage thanks in large part to seniors Mason Anderson and Shane Lange.
“I can’t thank our seniors enough. They are leaving the program in much better shape than they found it,” Ellsworth head football coach Rob Heller said. “And they’ve shown these young guys what it's like to lead and care about a team instead of individuals, and showing the guys what’s possible when you play team football instead of individual football.”
Although the final score indicated a rout, that wasn’t always the case in the early going. Northwestern opened the game with the ball and proceeded to march 67 yards in 11 plays to score a touchdown and take a 6-0 lead. The Tigers opening possession also ate up half the first quarter.
In Ellsworth’s first drive of the game they moved the ball effectively, but a tipped pass in the endzone fell into a waiting Northwestern defender’s arms for the interception. The Tigers weren’t able to do anything after the turnover however, and punted after a three-and-out.
Ellsworth moved the ball well again in their second possession and this time hit paydirt as Ashten Quade caught a 10-yard pass from Mason Anderson for a touchdown. The two-point conversion was successful to give the Panthers an 8-6 lead with 10:39 remaining in the second quarter.
The Panthers struck again five minutes later when Max Grand scored from 11 yards out to increase their lead to 14-6. With six minutes left in the half, Northwestern then ran over five minutes of game clock off with a 13-play drive that culminated with a game-tying touchdown.
Risking heading into halftime without a lead for the first time all season, Ellsworth had 52 seconds to go 80 yards and reclaim the lead before the break. Two plays later, the Panthers did just that as Anderson hit Quade for a 79-yard touchdown pass to put Ellsworth up 20-14 through two quarters.
“It’s been awhile since we’ve been down in a football game, and I’m glad the kids responded the way they did,” Heller said. “It says a lot about the kids’ character and just the way they play football.”
The momentum of the big-play touchdown to end the half was quickly sapped as Northwestern successfully recovered an onside kick attempt to open the second half. The Ellsworth defense stood its ground however and forced a punt after the Tigers could advance the ball only three yards.
“I think I felt us hold our breath a little bit after that onside kick,” Heller said. “We had an idea that they were going to try it. We were thinking something up the middle and they just found one of our bigger guys and they kicked it right at him, he tried to make a play, it didn’t work out but our defense bailed us out.”
The two teams then traded punts in their next possessions before Grand scored his second touchdown of the game in Ellsworth’s second drive of the half. He took a handoff 20 yards to put Ellsworth up 26-14. The Panthers then broke the game open in the fourth quarter as Anderson completed a pass to Grand who then took it 49 yards for a touchdown. Grand recorded his fourth touchdown of the game midway through the fourth quarter on a 26-yard run to complete the 42-14 win.
“I was really happy with how the kids responded after being down early in the game,” Heller said. “That Quade touchdown at the end of the first half was huge. That was like a pressure release valve for us.”
With the win, Ellsworth finishes its season with an 8-0 record.
Anderson went 11-of-16 passing for 185 yards and three touchdowns with one interception. He also added 14 yards rushing. Grand was the Panthers’ leading rusher with 104 yards and three touchdowns on 14 carries. He also caught one pass for 49 yards and a touchdown. Lange was not far behind as he finished with 87 yards on 11 carries.
Quade had a team-high 89 yards on two receptions. Both catches resulted in a touchdown. Jack Janke also caught six passes for 44 yards.
Forfeited games were a major theme to the buildup of the football season’s final week of play. In the Division 3 playoffs, Baldwin-Woodville and Prescott were unable to play. The New Richmond and Rice Lake matchup was cancelled in Division 2, and Spring Valley vs. Grantsburg and Cadott vs. Cameron also had a similar fate.