Plays that Elk River and Spring Lake Park repeatedly practice but use sparingly in games made a big difference as the Elks held off the Panthers 23-21 Saturday at TCO Stadium in Eagan in the quarterfinals of the Class 5A state tournament.
Elk River advances to the semifinals and will face defending champion Owatonna at 2 p.m. Friday at U.S. Bank Stadium. The teams met in the Prep Bowl last season.
Ranked No. 4 in the state, the Elks (10-1) went ahead 23-14 early in the fourth quarter on Carter Otto's 1-yard touchdown run and Nicholas Byrne's extra point, the latter a rare call for a team that usually tries two-point conversions.
"I said to [Byrne], 'You've done this before so do it again,' " Elks' quarterback Tyler Leshovsky said. "He does it all the time in practice. He can kick."
No. 9 Spring Lake Park (8-3) called a wheel route pass play and ran it to perfection. Quarterback Zach Dunbar and Derric Bergman co-authored a 49-yard catch and run and Elk River's lead shrank to 23-21 with 2:32 left.
"In a game, we've only used it once before," Bergman said. "I was thinking I had to make a play for my teammates."
Bergman, serenaded by Panthers fans with a chant of "Bergie, Bergie" for his second-quarter touchdown on a 17-yard run, sent the faithful into delirium as he ran down the Spring Lake Park sideline for his second score.
With Elk River taking over from its 49-yard line, however, Spring Lake Park needed another unlikely play.
"After I came off the field from scoring the touchdown, my teammate Teshaun Pate came up to me and said, 'Don't worry, we'll get the ball back for you and score again,'" said Bergman, his voice cracking with emotion.
Instead, Elk River's offense ran out the clock. Otto and fellow running backs Arik Nordenstrom and Adam Nelson. the program's career rushing leader, kept the ball in reliable hands.
The teams combined for 20 points in the final quarter, but Elk River never relinquished its lead.
"We fully expected a battle back and forth," Spring Lake Park coach John Stewart said. "We wanted to be right there to have a chance and we were."