Titans, Polars, Pioneers head to playoffs on winning notes

Tartan, North and Hill-Murray all closed out the regular season last Wednesday with victories. Those wins allowed Tartan and Hill-Murray to clinch first-round home playoff games and helped North avoid a first-round match-up against top-seeded and undefeated Stillwater.

Tartan
After three straight weeks of emotional games, Tartan traveled to Simley on Wednesday and came out emotionally flat. The Spartans took advantage by jumping ahead three different times. But to the Titans’ credit, they responded all three times and pulled out the 24-20 win in the fourth quarter.
“We tried to get on them,” said Tartan head coach Tim Hickey about trying to wake up his players. “We kept challenging them every time they went out there. To their credit, they stepped up to the challenge.”
Simley struck first and early to grab a 7-0 lead. On the third play of the game, the Spartans busted off an 80-yard touchdown run. Tartan answered later in the first quarter on a 4-yard run by Hedca Neufville.
Simley retook the lead in the second quarter but Tartan went into halftime with the lead thanks to another Neufville touchdown run and a 35-yard field goal by Mark Geskermann.
After a scoreless third quarter, Simley took its third lead of the game on a 25-yard passing touchdown. Faced with a 3-point deficit in the final quarter, Tartan engineered the game-winning drive that culminated in a 7-yard touchdown pass from Sam Ryan to Ryan McCarthy.
“We moved the ball the entire game,” Hickey said.
The win gives Tartan a 5-3 record against Classic Suburban Conference teams. The Titans faced conference foes in all eight games while the other eight teams played only seven conference games. Mahtomedi won the Classic Suburban with a perfect 7-0 record while St. Thomas Academy was second at 5-2. Tartan was next and then four teams tied for fourth place at 3-4.
Next up for Tartan is a Section 3AAAAA quarterfinal at home against Park of Cottage Grove. The Titans are the fourth seed and Park is fifth.
“Park is a good football team and plays in a good conference,” Hickey said. “We’re certainly happy to be at home.”
Park finished the regular season 3-5 and those three wins came over teams that went a combined 4-20 in the regular season. The five teams that beat the Wolfpack went 29-11. Close losses for Park included a 10-6 defeat at the hands of unbeaten Stillwater and a 19-16, last-second loss to White Bear Lake, the top seed in Section 4AAAAA.
“We’re very even teams,” Hickey said. “Our defense has played well all season and our offense is playing better. And they can be explosive on offense.”
The Park-Tartan winner advances to Saturday’s semifinals against the winner of Stillwater and St. Paul Harding. Stillwater would host if it wins in the first round while Harding would travel to the Park-Tartan winner if it pulls off the upset.

North
Heading into last week’s season finale, North High School was coming off a shutout loss to its archrival and was facing a team that had handed it a shellacking a year ago. The Polars were able to put all that behind them, however, and came up with a 35-8 victory over Staples-Motley.
“We had a really good game offensively and we clicked on defense,” said North head coach Jim Honsa. “Things just came together.”
There were positive signs from the outset for the Polars. Staples hadn’t punted in its three previous games but North started the game by forcing the Cardinals to go 3-and-out.
Matt McQuiston gave North both of its first-half touchdowns on a 1-yard run in the first quarter and a 10-yard run in the second. The Polars took a 14-0 lead to the locker room at halftime.
In the third, North put up three more touchdowns to stem any thoughts Staples-Motley had of a comeback. Matt Puhl threw touchdown passes of 64 and 45 yards and McQuiston added his third score of the game on a 3-yard run.
Staples’ only score came on a short run early in the third period.
“For our kids, we were more focused,” Honsa said when asked what the difference was this year against Staples-Motley, who beat North 50-0 in 2004. “Last year we had to travel (to Staples). We’re not used to that and we didn’t have that distraction this time.”
“And there was a little bit of vengeance,” said Honsa.
The game also had playoff seeding implications for North, which would have ended up seeded eighth had it lost. The win pushed the Polars up to the sixth seed and a quarterfinal game at third-seeded Hastings on Tuesday. Had they been the eighth seed, the Polars would have faced top-seeded, undefeated and third-ranked Stillwater.
“That’s going from the frying pan into the fire,” said Honsa.
Hastings (5-3) is a perennial state-tournament contender, having made it to state five straight times prior to last year. The Raiders have lost their last two games, including a 13-0 defeat at the hands of Forest Lake last week. Hastings also lost starting quarterback Jake Kranz in that game and Honsa was unsure whether Kranz would be available for Tuesday’s game.
Regardless of whether Kranz plays, Hastings still has all-everything back Jerad Stewart.
As for North, it has three more wins than it did a year ago. And there is another big difference in 2005 that Honsa explained.
“Last year, it was ‘If we play beyond what we’re capable of, we can win,’ “ Honsa said. “This year, ‘It’s if we play up to our capabilities, we can win.’ “
The Hastings-North St. Paul winner plays the winner of Woodbury-St. Paul Johnson in the semifinals on Saturday. If Johnson wins, the game will be at either Bakken or Griffin Stadium in St. Paul. If Woodbury wins, the game will be played at the home field of the Hastings-North victor.

Hill-Murray
Hill-Murray football coach Vince Conway admitted that when his team took a 13-point lead midway through the fourth quarter last Wednesday against Henry Sibley he figured the victory was sealed. But with the offensive fireworks both teams had put together up until that point, it was difficult to count out the Warriors.
Sibley rallied for two touchdowns and a 1-point lead with one minute remaining. But even that wasn’t enough because the Pioneers drove 59 yards to set up B.J. Otto’s 25-yard, game-winning field goal.
“I thought it was over with 7:31 left,” Conway said. “We showed some resilience.”
Otto had a lot to do with everything for Hill-Murray. He finished with 29 points scored as he ran for three touchdowns, caught one TD pass and kicked two extra points and the clinching field goal. He ran for 149 yards and caught six passes for 109 yards. Quarterback Charles Bruchu completed 23 of 39 passes for 334 yards.
Overall, Hill-Murray amassed 509 yards of offense while Henry Sibley responded with nearly 300.
The win left Hill-Murray in a four-way tie for fourth place in the Classic Suburban Conference with Sibley, South St. Paul and Richfield. More importantly, the victory gave the Pioneers the chance to open the playoffs at home. Fourth-seeded Hill hosts fifth-seeded South St. Paul Tuesday night in the quarterfinals of the Section 3AAAA playoffs.
Despite a 32-20 win over South St. Paul in week seven, Conway is taking nothing for granted.
“I expect another tight game,” said Conway. “It’s all brand new and the intensity levels go up. You have to make sure you’re ready.”
Conway knows not being ready can be a killer. Two years ago, his team went 7-1 but lost in the first round to Mahtomedi. The Pioneers don’t have to worry about Mahtomedi, the top seed in the section, until the second round but Conway said his team is only worried about one thing.
“All we’re thinking is Packers,” said Conway. “If you do that (look ahead) you put away your stuff on Wednesday.”
The South St. Paul/Hill-Murray winner plays at Mahtomedi, ranked first in the state in Class AAAA, on Saturday.

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