By Paul Lecker
SPENCER — Although Spencer/Columbus dominated defensively in the first half against Stratford, the WIAA Division 5 Level 3 football playoff game was separated by just one score entering the game’s second act.
In the third quarter, the Rockets put the game away with three big plays.
A 39-yard run by Noah Zastrow set up a touchdown on Spencer/Columbus’ first drive of the second half, Dakota Andreae blocked a punt that Ryan Busse recovered in the end zone for a score, and Hunter Luepke recovered a fumble that was followed by another TD, and the Rockets went on to a 30-15 victory over their former Marawood Conference rival on Friday night in front of a huge crowd at Spencer High School.
The three touchdowns in a span of 4:27 pushed an 8-0 halftime lead to a 30-0 advantage for the Rockets, who remain perfect at 12-0 and move on to a Division 5 Level 4 state semifinal next weekend against Shoreland Lutheran (10-2). A date, time, and site will be announced in the coming days.
The Spencer/Columbus co-op, in its 14th season, makes it to Level 4 for the first time. The only time the Spencer program has made it this deep in the WIAA playoffs was in 1982 when it lost to Osseo-Fairchild in the D-5 state title game.
“It’s a huge accomplishment for the program,” Spencer/Columbus coach Jason Gorst said. “We’re definitely happy with that but a lot of work to do yet.”
The normally high-powered Spencer/Columbus offense was slowed to a crawl in the first half by a spirited Stratford defense.
The Rockets did enough on their first possession of the game, driving 69 yards in 13 plays for a score. Spencer/Columbus converted three-straight third downs, and Hunter Hildebrandt scored from the 10 to end the drive. A two-point conversion run by Zastrow made it 8-0.
Stratford reached the 6 on its first drive but turned it over on downs.
The Rockets turned the ball over on back-to-back possessions in the second quarter on an interception by Wyatt Ehrike and a fumble recovery by Kyler Haupt, but Stratford could not do anything with either possession, and it remained 8-0 at the half.
“They were taking away our outside plays,” Stratford coach Jason Tubbs said. “We couldn’t get it going. They were crashing their big ends that they have, and pass blocking was kind of tough for us. We were down to our fourth guard (due to injuries), and they took advantage of that. They have a good senior-laden team, and they earned everything they got tonight.”
The tide turned in the Rockets’ favor in the third quarter.
After a three-and-out by Stratford to start the second half, the Rockets went 81 yards in nine plays for a touchdown. The drive was aided by an offsides penalty on Stratford on a fourth-and-1 play. Zastrow raced 39 yards for Rockets’ longest run of the game on the next play, and three plays later Luepke ran in from the 2 to make it 16-0.
The Spencer/Columbus defense forced another three-and-out and then came up with its biggest play of the night when the 6-foot-5 Andreae busted through the line to block the punt attempt of Stratford’s Jaren Fischer. Busse landed on the loose ball in the end zone, and a two-point run by Zastrow made it 24-0 in a blink of an eye.
“The defense was very physical, getting off the ball, and our linebackers were making reads,” Gorst said. “We were able to take away a couple of things that they do very, very well. We were able to limit their success early, and I thought that made for a good night.”
Luepke recovered a fumble on Stratford’s first play of its next possession at the 16-yard line, and five plays later Elijah Welsh scored from the 4. All of a sudden it was 30-0.
“They’re a good team. They executed what they wanted,” Tubbs said. “We forced two turnovers in the first half but didn’t capitalize on it, and they forced two turnovers in the second half and took advantage of it. That was the difference in the game.”
Stratford scored on back-to-back possessions in the fourth quarter to close the gap.
Taylor Krall had touchdown runs of 17 and 2 yards to make it 30-15, but two failed onside kick attempts by the Tigers left them without the ball and out of time.
Spencer/Columbus outgained Stratford 280-222, 130 of the Tigers’ yards coming in the fourth quarter.
(Hub City Times Sports Reporter Paul Lecker is also the publisher of MarshfieldAreaSports.com.)
Rockets 30, Tigers 15
Stratford 0 0 0 15 – 15
Spencer/Columbus 8 0 22 0 – 30
SC – Hunter Hildebrandt 10 run (Noah Zastrow run), 5:56.
SC – Hunter Luepke 2 run (Luepke run), 5:02.
SC – Ryan Busse recovered blocked punt in end zone (Zastrow run), 3:28.
SC – Elijah Welsh 4 run (run failed), 0:35.
ST – Taylor Krall 17 run (Sam Wenzel run), 5:42.
ST – Krall 2 run (Dieter Vanhove kick), 3:27.
First downs: ST 11; SC 12.
Rushing (att-yards): ST 34-148; SC 52-271.
Passing (comp-att-yards-int): ST 5-15-74-0; SC 1-3-9-1.
Penalties (no.-yards): ST 2-15; SC 5-62.
Fumbles (total-yards): ST 2-2; SC 2-1.
Punting (no.-avg.): ST 5-29.2; SC 3-26.7.
Rushing: ST, Taylor Krall 12-54, Kam Bornbach 10-53, Cole Hoffmann 7-12, Wyatt Ehrike 1-8, Sam Wenzel 4-minus 21. SC, Hunter Luepke 19-92, Noah Zastrow 8-89, Hunter Hildebrandt 9-56, Calvin Lenz 11-17, Jonny Tomke 4-13, Elijah Welsh 1-4.
Passing: ST, Wenzel 5-15-74-0. SC, Lenz 1-3-9-1.
Receiving: ST, Jesse Dickman 2-43, Hoffmann 2-30, Krall 1-1. SC, Austin Post 1-9.
Fumble recoveries (defense): ST, Kyler Haupt.. SC, Luepke, Ryan Busse.
Interceptions (defense): ST, Ehrike.
Punting: ST, Jaren Fischer 5-29.2. SC, Zastrow 1-45.0, Luepke 2-17.5.
Records: Stratford 9-3; Spencer/Columbus 12-0.