WARROAD — All the Pirates wanted was one more play.
Leyton Salentine's pass cut through the windy Minnesota night and arced down the sideline. It was a play Crookston had tried all game long. But this time, instead of smacking into the muddy turf, the ball found its target, senior wide receiver Quinn Westlake, for a 45-yard gain.
With time running out, the Pirates desperately raced to the line. Down by two scores, their playoff hopes long dashed, they weren't going to stop playing if there were ticks left on the clock.
Salentine took the snap, threw the ball into the ground, and the referee blew his whistle.
"He spiked it!" a chorus of Pirate voices rang out. But the referee was definitive. Crookston had responded to opponent's touchdowns, incomplete passes and failed fourth-down conversions, but the clock was the one thing it could do nothing about.
With that, the Pirates' football season came to an end at 3-6, as hosts Warroad defeated Crookston, 18-8, on Tuesday night in the first round of the Section 8AA Playoffs.
"They didn't want it to end," said head coach Scott Butt. "That's the way they've played their whole careers. ... They didn't give up, they were still trying to stick one in at the end, and sometimes the clock just runs out on you."
If the clock hadn't run out, or if football games were only two quarters, the Pirates might be gearing up for their next playoff game. Instead, they'll rue their inability to get things going in the first 24 minutes.
The tone of the game was clear even before kickoff. The field resembled a large puddle more than a gridiron, while the winds whipped and blew pockets of mist overhead like phantoms in the dark. These conditions ensured a scrappy, tough-it-out battle, making it hard for either team to find a rhythm.
The difference in the first half? When the Warriors made anything happen on offense, they really made it happen.
Warroad had gained only one yard for the game when, halfway through the first quarter, Cooper Cole pitched it to Jeremy Cole, who took the screen pass 42 yards to the house on third-and-long.
The Warriors also took advantage of any mistake Crookston made. Back to punt deep in his own territory with 7:39 before halftime, Brooks Butt couldn't corral a high snap. While he just barely got the kick away, Warroad took possession at the 16. The Pirates held firm, but on fourth-and-goal, Cole hit Blake Norris for a touchdown at the 5:09 mark.
After recovering another Pirate fumble, the Warriors again pounced. Cole went in untouched from nine yards out, putting Warroad up 18-0 and Crookston's season on life support entering the half.
"We just talked to everyone: 'Hey, we gotta get some life,' " Butt said. "It's not over but we gotta get some life and somebody's gotta step up and be a leader and get us going."
Salentine and freshman running back Ethan Boll were up to the task. Behind a rejuvenated ground game and offensive line that suddenly was opening up holes, the Pirates drove inside the Warrior 20-yard-line to on their first third-quarter possession before turning it over on downs.
Crookston finished the job two drives later. Warroad committed a late hit penalty after a Salentine scamper, and the Pirates ripped off chunk after chunk, culminating in Boll's 20-yard touchdown run with 9:46 to go. Salentine capped it off by finding the end zone on the two-point conversion.
"The number one thing that Leyton is he's got that ability to just take off and go at any time," Butt said. "And he's never gonna quit in a game. Every last chance, he's gonna try to get it."
The Pirates followed their senior quarterback's lead. Warroad had the chance to put the final nail in Crookston's coffin, but Brady Butt, Ty Hamre, Jaxon Wang and the Pirates' defense held firm on three straight plays from the one-yard line. From there, Salentine threw two strikes to Hamre — his first two completions of the game — for 36 yards. A miracle finish — a quick touchdown, followed by an onside kick recovery and another score — was suddenly in view.
But the Warriors sacked Salentine on third-and-long, and his fourth-down pass overshot Boll by ten yards. Then, the realization finally started to sink in.
Despite outgaining Warroad 256-192; despite holding strong on defense but for a handful of plays, the Pirates were headed home.
Body bruised and jersey muddied, Salentine hung his head and looked on towards the stands. Joseph Ramirez and Cade DeLeon embraced on the sideline. The visiting Crookston faithful began a chant of, "Thank you seniors!" as the seconds wore off the scoreboard.
The Pirates' final prayer of a drive was a fitting way to cap off a season in which they started 0-4 with blowout losses to Pillager and Barnesville. Just like they bounced back on Tuesday, they bounced back from that start, too, winning three of their next four games to put themselves in a strong position entering the playoffs.
But there's no element of "what-if?" here. At least not according to Crookston's coach, who could only be proud of the fight shown by his team.
"I thought our kids gave it their all the entire year and never gave up and that's all I ask for," Butt said. "It's just to never give up and give everything you have, and I thought that was the epitome of how the year went."
Passing: Leyton Salentine 3-11-1, 81 yards
Rushing: Salentine 16-84, Ethan Boll 20-79-1, Jaxon Wang 3-8, Brooks Butt 1-4
Receiving: Quinn Westlake 1-45, Ty Hamre 2-36
Tuesday's game was the last for Crookston's 10 seniors — Josh Bernia, Brady Butt, Joe Doda, Ty Hamre, Caden Osborn, Joseph Ramirez, Gavin Salem, Leyton Salentine, Quinn Westlake and Quinn Winand.