Game of the week - Thunder Ridge pulls away from Northern Valley
By CONOR NICHOLL
ALMENA -- The Thunder Ridge High School football team had some uncharacteristic play in the first half of Friday's must-win district contest against Almena-Northern Valley. Junior Dylan Bretton overthrew two wide-open wide receivers on deep passes that likely would have resulted in touchdowns.
Senior fullback Garrett Krueger fumbled at the Northern Valley goal line. The Longhorns, usually known for their physical, power running game, led by nine at halftime as Northern Valley controlled the clock.
However, Thunder Ridge took over the game with three rushing touchdowns on its first 13 plays of the third quarter. The Longhorns eventually clinched a 53-22 road victory and earned their fourth straight trip to the postseason.
Thunder Ridge collected 171 rushing yards on those 13 plays, including a 36-yard score on fourth and 1 from Krueger, a 53-yard Krueger TD and a 53-yard score by junior running back Trent Rietzke.
"We weren't quite as prepared going into the game," Krueger said. "We knew it was going to be a tough game. At halftime, we made adjustments, and we all started playing harder, more as a team instead of just playing as individuals. Coach just told us that we were better than what we were playing. We weren't playing to our ability, and then I just kind of picked the boys up."
Thunder Ridge moved to 7-1, 3-1 district play and earned the runner-up spot behind undefeated Beloit/St. John's-Tipton, ranked No. 5 in Eight-Man Division II in the statewide media poll. Northern Valley was eliminated from the postseason and dropped to 4-4, 2-2. The Longhorns will travel to No. 2-ranked Sharon Springs-Wallace County in the first round Nov. 5.
"We are usually a pretty physical team," Krueger said. "When we came out here and played these guys, they were pretty physical, too, and we didn't know how to take it. We're used to doing that to teams, so it was kind of a test. This game made us a lot better, I know that."
Rietzke displayed his usual array of speed and shiftiness for four total scores. All game, Northern Valley put their safety as a spy on Rietzke, but he collected 18 carries for 161 yards, had a 60-yard score on a punt return and caught a 52-yard pass.
"He is so quick and fast in the open field," Northern Valley coach Chuck Fessenden said.
Krueger finished with 15 carries for 139 yards and two scores and also caught an 11-yard TD pass. Many of Krueger's big runs came on plays up the middle behind 260-pound junior center Logan Miller. Phillip Bryant, the Huskies' fire hydrant-esque lineman, got banged up, which hurt Northern Valley's defense.
"They hurt us with the dive right up the middle," Fessenden said. "They got two big plays out of Krueger right up the gut. One of them, Phillip Bryant dislocated his finger, and he was out of the game. Our linebacker was supposed to fill it, and he said he got double teamed."
Junior Zach Wallgren stepped in at guard after sophomore starting guard Jordan Gering missed the contest with a concussion.
"I had a lot of help from the guards," Miller said. "Zach Wallgren, he kicked out on the nose guard a lot and helped me out. I worked a lot on my footwork this week and that helped, too."
Northern Valley took a 6-0 lead on an 18-yard screen pass from senior quarterback Hunter Chandler to Bryant. Thunder Ridge nearly tackled Bryant for a loss, but he broke multiple tackles en route to the end zone. The Longhorns took a 23-6 lead, but Northern Valley scored just before the half on a third-yard pass from Chandler to junior Matt Stutsman to cut the score to 23-14.
"They were doing some things that we're giving us some problems with our keys, what we were reading," Thunder Ridge coach Jerry Voorhees said. "They know how we read things, and they were doing some things to give some problems, but we got it fixed at halftime and we did a lot better job in the second half."
Northern Valley had two fumble recoveries to set up the score. Junior Clint Cole raced 33 yards after Krueger's end zone fumble and senior Jordan Baird had a 12-yard pickup after a Chandler fumble. At halftime, the Huskies had 35 plays, 10 more than the Longhorns.
Northern Valley, the No. 1 rushing offense in eight-man football, eschewed the run for short passes in the flat and screens all contest. Chandler finished 12 of 21 for 69 yards and two scores with an interception.
"We thought we had to throw quite a bit because they are so big on defense," Fessenden said.
After intermission, though, Thunder Ridge quickly took control. Krueger's first score came on the dive. On the third drive, Krueger rushed four yards up the middle on fourth and 1 from the Longhorn 20. Rietzke eventually scored after he fumbled in the backfield, but picked up the ball, made several Huskies miss, broke a tackle and scored for a 45-14 lead with 2:20 left in the third.
"I thought we played a lot more physical in the second half than we did the first half," Voorhees said. "I challenged our kids at halftime, we have got to be more physical."