An autumn spent in battle in one of the state's toughest sub-districts proved worth the effort for St. Michael-Albertville. Forced to play most of the game without Evan Ronson, a second-team All-Metro linebacker, because of a back injury, and top running back Eric Sjelin, lost for the second half with a leg injury, the Knights leaned on their game-hardened background to pull out a 28-21 victory over St. Thomas Academy in the Class 5A championship game.
"We played some really tough opponents. We had to earn our section championship," St. Michael-Albertville coach Jacob Essler said. "And once we got to the state tournament, it wasn't exactly an easy road. I can't say enough about how these guys stepped up. We lost a starting linebacker and a starting running back, but we just kept battling."
Tied to begin the second half, St. Michael-Albertville was able to take control after a St. Thomas Academy fumble on the Cadets' first drive.
"That was a huge play," St. Thomas Academy coach Dave Ziebarth said. "At the time, I felt it would it would burn us a little bit and it did."
The Knights opened up a two-touchdown lead on a 25-yard touchdown reception by Isaiah Weston in the third quarter and sophomore Mitchell Kartes' second 1-yard scoring run of the game in the fourth quarter.
"I have to stop calling him a player with a great future because he's been a player with a great present," Essler said of Kartes, who gained 141 yards rushing.
St. Thomas Academy rallied, cutting the lead to 28-21 on a fourth-down, 7-yard pass from Andrew Tri to Woody Hubbell with 3:57 left in the game, but got no closer.
The teams spent the first half trying to find the other's weaknesses, playing their own version of hot potato with momentum. St. Michael-Albertville struck first, taking a 7-0 lead on a 9-yard run by Sjelin following a St. Thomas Academy turnover. The Cadets countered on their next possession with an 83-yard pass from Tommy Dolan to Mac Brown.
The second quarter was more of the same. St. Thomas took the lead 14-7 on a 4-yard run by Sean McFadden, and St. Michael-Albertville answered when Kartes scored his first touchdown, with 55 seconds left in the second quarter.
The half ended 14-14, with neither team having gained an advantage.
"It was like two heavyweights who just kept fighting and needed to get an advantage," Ziebarth said. "We were hoping to get that advantage in the third quarter and we gave it back to them."