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Patriots edge Panthers in playoff opener

Tristin Persons, shown trying to evade a tackle by Pequot Lakes' Tim Ryan during a regular-season game, scored on a 4-yard run in Park Rapids' 19-14 Section 8AA playoff loss at Pequot Lakes Tuesday night. Vance Carlson / Enterprise

Jeremy Nordick has seen this scenario too often this season.

The head coach of the Park Rapids football team has seen his players compete for 48 minutes only to fall short in the end. The latest episode occurred Tuesday night as Pequot Lakes held off a late rally for a 19-14 victory in a Section 8AAA quarterfinal playoff game.

That was the fifth close loss for the Panthers this season, who battled in setbacks to East Grand Forks (13-12), Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton (14-12), Fergus Falls (13-12) and Pequot Lakes (32-20 in which the Patriots returned fumbles 75 yards and 81 yards for touchdowns and scored on pass plays of 73 and 65 yards).

Park Rapids, the No. 5 seed in the section, controlled the ball by running 68 plays compared to the Patriots’ 32. But another big pass play and four turnovers proved costly as No. 4 Pequot Lakes advanced.

“I felt we battled, just like we have all season,” said Nordick. “Going into the year, we wanted to make a point that we were not going to be everyone's doormat or their ‘easy’ win. Every game this year we started to gain back the respect of the section opponents because of how hard our kids play for 48 minutes. I thought every game night we were the more physical team. For a lot of teams, that's really all it takes to win football games. Unfortunately, we had some tough breaks that we just couldn't quite overcome. It didn't say it on the scoreboard for those close games, or on our record, but we know that we won those games physically.”

The Panthers took the opening kickoff and used carries of 9 yards and 8 yards by Tristin Persons for a pair of first downs to reach midfield. Quarterback Spencer Fritze was sacked on third down and Park Rapids had to punt.

A holding penalty on Pequot Lakes on the punt return and a 13-yard loss on a sack forced the Patriots to punt from their own 4-yard line. The Panthers took over at the Pequot Lakes 35 and capitalized when Cody Dravis followed a 12-yard run with an 18-yard scoring run to cap off the four-play drive. Zach Fritze booted the extra point as Park Rapids led 7-0 with 2:53 to play in the first quarter.

That lead was short-lived when Cody Magnuson caught a screen pass, ran across the field and scampered 85 yards for a TD. Daltin Ackerman’s kick tied the game at 7-7 at the 1:54 mark.

Park Rapids responded with another solid drive as an 8-yard run by Persons, an 8-yard reception by Jerry Engst, a 7-yard carry by Spencer Fritze and a 5-yard gain by Payton Hill drove the Panthers to the Pequot Lakes 22. But three plays later, the Panthers fumbled and Pequot Lakes took over at its own 15.

After both teams exchanged punts, the Patriots took the lead with a four-play, 41-yard drive. Magnuson’s 7-yard punt return and a facemask penalty gave Pequot Lakes possession at the Park Rapids 41. An 11-yard reception by Carter Sjoblad and a 10-yard catch by Nic Kotaska were followed by a holding penalty. On the next play Kotaska hit Ackerman on a 32-yard scoring strike as Pequot Lakes claimed a 13-7 lead.

The Panthers used an 11-yard run by Persons, a facemask penalty and an 8-yard catch by Nathan David to march near midfield, but an interception ended the half.

Pequot Lakes controlled field position in the second half to secure the win.

Both teams exchanged punts to open the second half before the Patriots put together a quick four-play, 60-yard scoring drive. A 6-yard run by Magnuson, a 9-yard pass to Kotaska and a 21-yard reception by Tyler Larson set up a 33-yard quarterback keeper by Cale Wolf. That gave Pequot Lakes a 19-7 lead.

The Panthers started the ensuing drive at their own 10 and lost a fumble at the 6. Park Rapids’ defense held and Pequot Lakes couldn’t take advantage when Ackerman missed a 23-yard field goal.

Park Rapids responded with a nine-play, 80-yard scoring drive with Persons’ 48-yard run to the Pequot Lakes 29, five carries for 18 yards by Dravis and a 7-yard carry by Persons setting up a 4-yard TD run by Persons. Zach Fritze’s kick made it 19-14.

Kotaska broke free for a 45-yard run to give Pequot Lakes a first down at the Park Rapids 35, but that drive stalled and the Patriots were forced to punt. The Panthers were pinned at their own 10 and had to punt, but Park Rapids’ defense held and forced the Patriots to punt.

Park Rapids regained possession at its own 7 and used a 9-yard run by Persons on fourth-and-2 and a 20-yard run by Dravis to reach the Pequot Lakes 48. Sjoblad’s interception with :07 remaining sealed the win.

Wolf completed 12 of 16 passes for 163 yards and Magnuson caught four passes for 96 yards to lead the Patriots’ offense. Pequot Lakes improved to 5-4 and will play No. 1 Perham in a section semifinal game. No. 3 Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton, which defeated No. 6 Thief River Falls 44-7, faced No. 2 East Grand Forks in the other semifinal game.

The Panthers end the season with a 2-7 record and seven-game losing streak.

“We felt really good about the matchup going into the game. The first time we played them we had a couple of freak plays that you just rarely see go against us. So we knew if we took care of those, that we would be right in there,” said Nordick. “We had a solid couple of practices to prepare. We had a good understanding as to what they do on each side of the ball, so all we had to do was just execute on a more consistent level. I thought we did execute much better, but again, a couple of big plays from some great players just were too much for us to overcome.”

Park Rapids   7 0 0 7...14Pequot Lakes   7 6 6 0...19SCORINGPR--Dravis 18 run (Z. Fritze kick)PL--Magnuson 85 pass from Wolf (Ackerman kick)PL--Ackerman 32 pass from Kotaska (kick failed)PL--Wolf 33 run (run failed)PR--Persons 4 run (Z. Fritze kick)