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Spartans,Tigers play a masterpiece

Somerset fullback Max Praschak (29) barrels untouched through a hole to score from eight yards out to put Somerset ahead 21-7 in the second quarter of Friday’s game in New Richmond. (Photo by Dave Newman) 1 / 3
New Richmond receiver Zach Dietzler (15) darts to the sideline after catching a pass from quarterback Brady Maus in the Tigers’ final drive of Friday’s game. (Photo by Dave Newman) 2 / 3
Somerset punt returner Jon Sullivan (left) is about to take a hit from New Richmond’s Kris Vsetecka (44) during the first half of Friday’s game. (Photo by Dave Newman)3 / 3

It’s a rare, rare thing when a football game carrying this much anticipation lives up to all the excitement.

Friday’s clash between the Somerset and New Richmond football teams not only lived up to the anticipation, it surpassed it. Somerset won the game 34-27, but the game wasn’t decided until the final seconds, when Somerset linebacker Max Praschak intercepted a New Richmond pass at the Spartan goal line.

With the win, Somerset locks up a berth in the 2014 WIAA state football playoffs. The Spartans stand alone atop the Middle Border Conference standings with a 4-0 record. New Richmond is tied with Ellsworth and Osceola for second place in the standings at 3-1.

The excitement level for this game showed in the outpouring of fans for both teams for New Richmond’s Homecoming game. New Richmond Athletic Director Casey Eckardt estimated that approximately 4,000 fans attended Friday’s game.

New Richmond must turn around and play another challenging opponent this Friday when the Tigers travel to Ellsworth. New Richmond coach Keith Badger said he felt fortunate to be playing another of the MBC’s teams after playing such an emotionally charged game last Friday.

“Now the kids know we’ll play at that level again,” Badger said.

While Somerset has been one of the top teams in the MBC for more than a decade, New Richmond is the newbie in competing among the conference’s hierarchy. Going into Friday’s game, the New Richmond coaches were saying they were using Friday’s game as a measuring stick to find out how well they could compete with an elite program like Somerset’s.

New Richmond had one surprise ready for the Spartans. The Tigers went to an unorthodox five-man front on defense after having used a four-man front all season. Badger said the defense adjusted its alignment on each play, based on what the Somerset offense was trying to do.

“We were doing anything we could do to interrupt their reads,” Badger said.

Somerset coach Bruce Larson and the Spartans are learning that they can’t expect teams to play their normal defenses against them. Larson said that in all six games this season, Somerset’s opponents have put in special defensive alignments in hopes of slowing down the Spartan attack.

While both teams have excellent defenses, from the first possession on Friday night, this became a game of big plays. Somerset got the ball first. After pounding the ball into the middle of the Tiger defense for several plays, Spartan senior halfback Heaven Hunt took a pitch and ran 57 yards for the opening score of the game.

It didn’t take the Tigers long to strike back with a big play of their own. Quarterback Brady Maus found Dylan Dowd slashing across the field on a crossing pattern. His pass hit Dowd in stride and Dowd was able to race 49 yards for the tying touchdown.

In the second quarter Somerset did its best to break the game open, but the Tigers didn’t fall apart after falling behind 21-7. Somerset quarterback Reed Baillargeon scored seconds into the second quarter, using strong blocks from the left side of the Spartan line to break away for a 57-yard touchdown.

The Spartans then got the biggest break of the game. The Tigers muffed the ensuing kickoff and Somerset recovered at the Tiger 14yard line. Seconds later, Spartan fullback Max Praschak barreled through a large hole to score from eight yards out, increasing the Somerset lead to 21-7.

After an exchange of punts, the Tigers got the ball at their own 26 with three minutes left in the half. The variety in New Richmond’s passing game had the Spartans on their heels, as Maus connected with several receivers as the Tigers drove downfield. A 16-yard run by Jake Singerhouse got the ball to the Spartan 5. After a penalty, Maus found Zach Dietzler with a pass to the Spartan 1. From there, Maus scored on the quarterback sneak with 16 seconds left in the half.

Badger said the maturation of Maus as a quarterback has made the Tigers’ passing game a challenge for any defense.

“Brady’s confident he can throw the ball anywhere he wants, against anybody,” Badger said.

The Tigers couldn’t go anywhere on the first possession of the second half. Somerset fumbled right away, with Tiger senior Austen Dimick recovering. Badger said Dimick was the Tigers’ top defensive player in the game because he was able to beat his blocker and make several key stops in the Somerset backfield.

The Tigers quickly converted the turnover into points, with Maus finding Austin Juhl running free down the hashmarks for a 25-yard score that tied the game.

There were several missed chances in the third quarter. The Spartans had a 59-yard touchdown run by Mitchell Foster called back on a penalty. The Tigers got a 35yard punt return from Juhl, but they couldn’t turn it into points.

The Tigers held Praschak in check for much of the night, but the Spartan fullback couldn’t be reined in forever. In the final minute of the third quarter, Praschak broke through a hole and charged downfield for a 67yard score that put Somerset ahead 28-21.

By this time, New Richmond was almost exclusively passing on offense. And it was getting results. Less than a minute after Praschak’s score, the Tigers reached the end zone. Juhl got behind the Spartan secondary again, this time for a 31-yard score. For the first time in the game, an extra point kick was missed, leaving the Tigers trailing 28-27.

Somerset was stopped in its next possession. So was New Richmond, thanks to two tackles in the backfield by Spartan linebacker Brody Penman. That led to a Tiger punt, which Hunt toted back to the New Richmond 30.

The first 29 yards of the yard were covered on carries by Praschak. But he wasn’t the Max who got the final touchdown. Senior quarterback Max Becher was inserted for a play when Baillargeon’s helmet came off. With Becher’s height advantage on Baillargeon, it worked to the Spartans’ advantage as Becher lunged into the end zone for the touchdown on the quarterback sneak.

The Spartans went for the two-point conversion, knowing it would put the game out of reach. The Tiger defense rose up, stopping Praschak in the backfield with 2:57 left in the game.

Fans from both teams watched breathlessly as the Tigers tried frantically to get the tying touchdown. Maus completed several passes and scrambled several times to keep the drive alive. With seconds remaining, Maus tried scrambling again. The two slot receivers merged in the center of the end zone, as did their coverage. Maus tried to hit Dietzler with a pass, but Praschak was waiting at the goal line. He returned the ball beyond the Spartan 30 as time ran out on the Tigers’ hopes.

Larson said at the start of the season he expected the game in New Richmond to be the toughest assignment for the Spartans in the MBC season.

“We are battle tested,” Larson said. “We got everything they could muster and we survived. That was a great contest for high school sports.”

This Friday the Spartans play a home game against Amery, which is Somerset’s Homecoming game. Larson said his team can’t afford a slip up in these final weeks.

“We haven’t won anything yet,” Larson said, referring to the team’s hopes of a conference title. “We have to get better.”

Dave Newman

Dave Newman has been the sports editor at the New Richmond News since 1988. He has covered the action in the Middle Border Conference, Dunn-St. Croix Conference and Big Rivers Conference for nearly 30 years.

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