Miracle finish lifts Eagle River into D-II football title game; Mustangs fall in D-I quarters
Trailing 24-22 with less than two minutes to play in their Division II football semifinal against Lathrop in Palmer Saturday night, Eagle River’s dream season was on the brink as the Wolves faced fourth-and-9 from their own 44-yard-line.
The Wolves needed a miracle at Machetanz Field. They got one.
Quarterback Ryan Adkins lofted a long pass in the direction of Quanard Cox, and the speedy wideout did the rest, catching the pass in stride and racing to the end zone for the biggest touchdown in school history.
“I always tell him just throw it up and I’ll go get it,” Cox said moments after his teammates stormed the field following the Wolves’ 30-24 victory.
Pandemonium erupted after the game, with players either laughing, screaming, crying or staring at each other in stunned disbelief.
“Most of them are crying,” said Cox, who scored all four Eagle River touchdowns. “I was earlier.”
Cox finished the game with 189 all-purpose yards, including 125 receiving on seven catches and another 64 rushing yards on nine carries for the Wolves, who outgained Lathrop 396-286.
Eagle River dominated in the trenches, holding Lathrop to just 34 rushing yards and sacking Littell four times — including two by Tim Pennington and one each by Dominic Ables and Josh Tripp.
Adkins went 11-for-19 passing for 174 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions to lead a balanced Eagle River attack. The Wolves rushed for 222 yards on 57 carries, including 66 from Andrew Hamilton, 64 from Cox and 57 from Kobe Sherman.
Lathrop struck first Saturday, getting a 28-yard touchdown pass from Jaden Littell to Michael Zadra on the game’s first possession. But the Wolves answered quickly, getting a 6-yard strike from Adkins to Cox on the first play of the second quarter and taking an 8-7 lead on Adkins’ conversion run.
Things could have gotten bad for the Wolves after a disastrous sequence of events late in the second quarter gave the Malemutes a two-score halftime lead. An Adkins punt with less than five minutes left in the second quarter hit an Eagle River lineman, and the Malemutes needed just two plays to capitalize on the good field position, getting a 25-yard score from Littell to Dana Mowry with 4:10 to go. Eagle River’s next drive stalled out at midfield with less than 30 seconds to play in the half and it cost them dearly as Littell found Jhon Rones for a 43-yard screen pass to give Latrhop a 21-7 lead going into the half.
But the Wolves never panicked, Cox said.
“Nobody gave up at halftime,” he said. “We said, ‘We’re going to go get it.’”
The Wolves came out snarling after the break as sophomore Austin Jackson returned the second-half kickoff to midfield. Nine plays later, Adkins found Cox for a 28-yard touchdown that cut the lead to 21-15 with 8:48 left in the third.
Lathrop padded its lead with a 27-yard Jarren Littell field goal midway through the third, but that would be the Malemutes’ only points of the half as Eagle River’s defense shut down the Railbelt Conference champions the rest of the way.
Cox’s 29-yard scamper made it 24-22 going into the fourth quarter. Lathrop tried to stretch its lead out late, but Ables blocked Jarren Littell’s 33-yard field goal try with 3:57 left to set up the Wolves’ game-winning drive.
The win moved the Wolves (7-2) into an 11:30 a.m. Saturday showdown against Soldotna (8-1), which is looking for its seventh straight Division II title. Eagle River had never played in a playoff game before this season, but the Wolves are now one game away from winning it all. But Cox said he and his teammates know they’ve got a tough task ahead.
“We’ve just got to practice hard all week,” he said.
Thunderbirds eliminate Mustangs
Chugiak’s upset bid gained some traction in the second half against No. 1 ranked East Saturday, but the Thunderbirds pulled away late for a decisive victory in the opening round of the Division I playoffs at East High.
East led 35-7 at halftime, but the Mustangs scored the first two touchdowns of the second half to make it a two-score game early in the fourth quarter. That was as close as Chugiak would get, as the Cook Inlet Conference champions added a pair of late scores for the final margin of victory. The loss was a bitter bookend to a brutal season for the 1-8 Mustangs, who also lost to the T-birds in the season-opener in August.
Despite the tough outcome, Chugiak head coach Ryan Landers said he was extremely pleased with his team’s final game, which he said was its best of the season.
“I was totally happy at the end of the game even though we lost,” Landers said.
Chugiak quarterback Quentin Wilson threw for 341 yards and three touchdowns as the Mustangs piled up more than 420 yards of offense against the state’s No. 1 team.
“I think they started to believe they could do it,” Landers said of his team.
Wyatt Rhode, Logan Mathieu and Tyler Huffer caught touchdown passes from Wilson, who left the game late with an injured shoulder.
Landers said the strong finish bodes well for the Mustangs, who had nine sophomores on this year’s varsity roster.
“I’m looking forward to it already,” he said.
WOLVES 30, MALEMUTES 24
Saturday, Machetanz Field (Palmer, AK)
Eagle River 0 8 14 7 — 30
Lat - Zadra 28 pass from Jaden Littell (Jarren Littell kick), 10:18
ER - Cox 6 pass from Adkins (Adkins run), 11:54
Lat - Mowry 25 pass from Jaden Littell (Jarren Littell kick), 4:10
Lat - Rones 43 pass from Jaden Littell (Jarren Littell kick), :18
ER - Cox 28 pass from Adkins (A. Hamilton kick), 8:48
Lat - Jarren Littell 27 field goal, 6:25
ER - Cox 29 run (A. Hamilton kick), 3:27
ER - Cox 56 pass from Adkins (Rollman pass from Adkins), 1:24
Eagle River Lathrop
First downs 19 11
Rushes-yds 57-222 25-34
Passing yards 174 252
Comp-att-int 11-19-0 13-23-0
Fumbles-lost 3-0 2-1
Penalties-yds 10-90 3-15
Punts-avg. 3-23.0 2-28.0
Return yards 2 22
RUSHING — Eagle River: A. Hamilton 18-66, Cox 9-64, Sherman 14-57, Adkins 9-30, Williams 7-5. Lathrop: Maschmeier 15-48, Zadra 1-3, Rones 1-(-2), Jad. Littell 8-(-15).
PASSING — Eagle River: Adkins 11-19-0—174. Lathrop: Jad. Littell 13-23-0—252.
RECEIVING — Eagle River: Cox 7-125, Piper 2-30, Rollman 1-12, Sherman 1-7. Lathrop: Mendez 5-86, Zadra 3-74, Mowry 2-40, Maschmeier 2-9, Rones 1-43.