Win-E-Mac starts section title defense off right with beatdown of Nevis
ERSKINE — Hanging along the backside of the bleachers at Win-E-Mac's football stadium are two blue banners quick to remind you where you are and who you're up against.
Home of the Patriots, the larger one reads. Then, the smaller one to to its right: Minnesota State Tournament Appearances 1989, 1991, 2019,
Focus on that comma. It's not a typo.
The subtext appears to be that Win-E-Mac believes it isn't done. With good reason. After going 12-1 and making it to the state 9-man semifinals in Minneapolis last season, the Patriots haven't missed a beat to start 2020. They crushed Northern Freeze, 46-0, in Newfolden in last Friday's season opener. And here, in Thursday evening's home opener, they did the same to Nevis, 41-13, to begin their Section 6 title defense in earnest.
Win-E-Mac may very well defend that title. But state, for now, is out of the question.
When the Minnesota State High School League okayed football back in September, it did so without any guarantee of play beyond section championships. State tournaments involve bringing players and fans from all corners of the state together, converging in larger, more central locales. In the time of COVID-19, it's hard to see how the MSHSL would find it practical.
Aaron Cook understands this reality. While the Patriots' head coach is still holding out hope for some sort of post-section competition, he's telling his players to only focus on what they can control.
"If the high school league reverses course and allows maybe one state game, or even any more, we'll be very happy," Cook said. "If we get to that level."
The key word there — twice — is "if".
So for now? Win-E-Mac's expectation is a second straight section championship. That, the Patriots know is for their taking. And judging from Thursday's beatdown, they'll have a great shot at taking it.
Last season, Cook says, Win-E-Mac was fairly dependent on two rushers: tailback Nathan Fortmann and quarterback Gavin Walker. With Fortmann and his 1,000-plus yards graduated, the Patriots' ground game looks a little different now; more reliant on a committee than a workhorse.
But between Walker (Sr.), Bryer Strom (Sr.), Kobe Hamre (Sr.), Jonas Spry (So.) and Tom Martushev (Sr.), it's just as deadly. Strom ripped off a long touchdown run to start the scoring in the first quarter, and found paydirt again in the second. Hamre scored the game's final touchdown on a 50-yard jaunt on the first play of the fourth quarter.
At the center of it all is Walker, a returning All-State honoree and a true dual threat behind center. A year ago, Walker completed 54 percent of his passes for 1,115 yards while rushing for 974 yards on 124 carries. But he didn't do much with his arm Thursday, instead functioning as Win-E-Mac's goal-line back. The Tigers simply couldn't bring down the 6-foot-2, 195-pound senior, who scored three touchdowns from within five yards and gained plenty more yards in the open field.
Perhaps Walker's lone mistake came late in the second quarter, when he was intercepted on a long pass down the seam. Nevis immediately marched down the field, scoring its first touchdown with two minutes before halftime. But the Patriots, instead of being content with going into halftime up 21-7, needed just 1:43 to score, finishing off the drive with a Walker touchdown on the first half's last play.
"We pride ourselves on our two-minute offense," Cook said. "Going back to last year, out of our 13 games, I wanna say in nine of those 13 games we scored in the final two minutes of the first half. ... I was really happy with how our guys responded to punch that one in and kind of deflate them right before the half."
A big reason for Win-E-Mac's rushing success, Cook said, was up front. The Patriots' linemen showed good mobility and held their blocks much better than they did last Friday, which enabled Walker, Strom, Hamre and Spry to be patient, get outside and rip off chunk yards at will.
"Our tight end and then our strong side slot receiver did a good job sealing down, and then our receiver worked up to the next level," Cook said. "... Our running backs were patient, making some plays. We didn't have to rely on the air quite so much like we did against the Freeze. Still gotta shore a few things up going up the middle, where we really wanna take it to teams, but we got a lot of athletes and getting to the edge worked well for us tonight."
Cook thought his team played "bend-but-don't-break" defensively. While Win-E-Mac mostly avoided giving up big plays, Nevis quarterback Derek Lindow racked up a number of completions underneath on slant routes.
"If they were gonna make something happen, they were gonna have to drive and make that happen," Cook said. "I was happy with that. I wasn't very happy with our tackling tonight. They seemed to slip off of us a few too many times. We had guys in the right spot, just have to finish up a few things there."
All in all, it was a win — and one in the face of adversity, no less. The Patriots were without three potential starters, including Martushev, due to injury, and lost a fourth on an injury during the game. For a 9-man team, that's an even more glaring hole than normal.
But Win-E-Mac still won, for the 14th time in its last 15 games, and after the game was over, the Patriots gathered triumphantly in their end zone. Chanting "Cookie! Cookie!," they jumped up and down, waiting for their coach to join the celebration. The jubilant Cook then ran full-speed into the pile, followed by two of his assistants.
Many coaches preach a mantra of controlling what you can control. But now, with this season's conclusion still uncertain, maybe it can't be written off as cliche so quickly.
"Our guys know we haven't played perfect," Cook said. "Fortunately, with the guys we have, I don't have to focus them. They're a veteran crew and they focus themselves. They realize there's still things to work on and they have our goals in mind. ... They take it upon themselves, if things aren't going well, to figure it out."
Should the Patriots keep doing that — and receive a bit of divine (read: MSHSL) intervention — maybe they'll be adding the year "2020" to that banner after all.
UP NEXT: Win-E-Mac goes to Moorhead Sunday, Oct. 18 to take on Park Christian (1-0). Nevis has Laporte next on Oct. 23.
First quarter (Win-E-Mac): Bryer Strom run (Gavin Walker kick)
1:48 first quarter (Win-E-Mac): Walker run (kick failed)
5:19 second quarter (Win-E-Mac): Strom run (Walker pass to Alex Jacobson)
1:43 second quarter (Nevis): Derek Lindow run (Lindow kick)
0:00 second quarter (Win-E-Mac): Walker run (run failed)
3:33 third quarter (Win-E-Mac): Walker run (Kobe Hamre run)
0:05 third quarter (Nevis): Joe Houchin pass from Lindow (kick blocked)
11:48 fourth quarter (Win-E-Mac): Hamre run (run failed)
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