By Chad Courrier
The Free Press
Mark Esch has coached teams that fell behind early, but the Mankato West football players haven’t been in that situation before.
“We don’t panic,” Esch said. “When you get behind early, you feel the eyes on you, but you have to stay poised and focused. If you panic, your team panics. I though the kids did a good job of not panicking.”
New Prague jumped ahead 10-0 after two possessions, but the Scarlets held the Trojans from that point forward, rallying for a 21-10 victory in the semifinals of the Section 2AAAAA playoffs Saturday at Todnem Field. It was the first time all season that West trailed by more than one score.
“You just need to keep everybody positive,” senior linebacker Tyler Jakes said. “It was a two-possession game, which isn’t that much. You have to keep playing defense and keep everybody focused.”
West fumbled on its second play, giving New Prague the ball near midfield. The Trojans’ then connected on a 50-yard touchdown pass that stunned the Todnem Field crowd.
“This is a team that you don’t want to get behind,” Jakes said. “They’re tough, and they want to run the ball and control the clock.”
After West failed on a fake punt, New Prague drove down to the 17 and kicked a field goal for a 10-0 lead with 3 minutes remaining in the first quarter.
“The defense really stepped up after that,” Esch said. “They really just hit one big play. It’s tough to go 12 plays against our defense without turning it over or stopping on downs.”
West didn’t generate much offense until the final minute of the half. Connor Watts’ 46-yard diving catch along the sidelines put the ball at New Prague’s 7 and, a couple plays later, Ryan Schlichte passed 7 yards to Trenton Marks and Bill Leitch kicked the PAT to make it 10-7 at halftime.
“It was huge to get the score before the half,” Esch said. “There were a lot of huge plays.”
The biggest came early in the third quarter. West stopped New Prague’s first drive at the 31, and a bad snap sailed over the punter’s head. Marks grabbed the ball at the 4 and ran into the end zone for the go-ahead score.
“It’s a break, and you take it,” Esch said. “You never think you’re going to get a bad snap on a punt and score.”
New Prague’s best drive of the second half ended with Will Claussen’s interception in the end zone. Early in the fourth, taking advantage of a short punt, Schlichte scored on a 3-yard run for the 21-10 victory.
“We’ve been through a lot this year so this feels really good,” Jakes said. “We’ve still got next week, and we have to take care of business, but it’s good to celebrate the last time here. I think all the adversity we’ve been through has made us a stronger, closer team.”
West ended up with 263 yards in offense, with Schlichte completing 16 of 32 passes for 198 yards. West rushed for only 65 yards but was effective in the second half. Watts had six catches for 95 yards.
Jakes led the defense with 13 tackles, while Alex Knutson had 11 tackles and Josh Athey made 10. Claussen had two interceptions.
“I saw something in the kids today,” Esch said. “This was a tough game, and they stepped up, which is something we didn’t do (in a loss to Rochester John Marshall). The kids really battled today.”
West (3-6) plays for the section championship at 7 p.m. Friday at top-seeded Chanhassen.
“We’ll be ready,” Jakes said.