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For Esko, so crushingly close

Wyatt Hudspith had just booted a careerlong 35-yard field goal to give his Esko football team a 17-14 lead over Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton midway through the fourth quarter last weekend, and the boys in blue and gold looked geared to win.

The Rebels had other plans.

Just 18 seconds later, do-it-all quarterback Owen Leach lofted an 85-yard touchdown toss to teammate Nick Waale one play after Esko scored, as No. 2 DGF downed the top-ranked team in Class AAA 21-17 before a chilly crowd Saturday, Nov. 12, at Don Adamson Field in Brainerd.

If that weren't enough, the 6-foot-6 Leach - a Minnesota-Duluth basketball commit - leapt up in the game's waning seconds to reel in a game-saving interception in the end zone. It's the third time this season the varsity veteran has won a game with his hands-on defense for the undefeated Rebels (11-0), who have now rallied to win six games this fall when trailing with less than eight minutes left.

The quarterback's catch was just another upset in a seesaw game between the state's top two squads in Class AAA.

"He's not the only one, but he's one of the reasons why we're 11-0," said DGF coach Tony Soderberg of Leach, who threw for 296 yards and two touchdowns Saturday. "He's a heck of a ball player. Just a heck of an athlete."

Esko earned a 7-0 lead, which held until halftime on a 35-yard touchdown pass from Ty Christensen to Makoi Perich. In the third quarter, DGF darted back when running back Jordan Summers slammed in from 1 yard out and then Leach found Brodey O'Keefe on a 23-yard TD pass to go up 14-7.

Perich then found the end zone again - this time with his legs - on a 30-yard touchdown tear with just 1.5 seconds left in the third quarter to square things at 14-all entering the fourth. Perich tallied 162 total yards in the quarterfinal game.

"It was just two good teams going at it," said Esko senior Nolan Witt, who finished with 90 yards rushing on 21 carries. "I gotta hand it to them. They definitely came to play."

Following Hudspith's go-ahead field goal and Leach's take-back-the-lead touchdown pass, the Eskomos put together a promising drive that led them down to the DGF 2-yard line in the final minute of play.

But several procedure penalties - including offsides, illegal motion and a false start - put a once second down-and-2 to third down-and-17 when Christensen's last-ditch heave to the end zone found Leach's outstretched hands.

"That's the state tournament - everybody in there is good," said Eskomos coach Scott Arntson, finishing his seventh season. "They just made the play."

"It was a hard way to end," added Christensen, who was 8 for 16 for 103 yards, a touchdown and two interceptions in his final prep game. "We just made too many little errors that accumulated to a loss. It's more of a punch in the face than anything."

For the game, Esko finished with six penalties for 59 yards. Comparatively, DGF didn't have a single penalty.

"When you have two even teams like that, the one who makes less mistakes is likely to win, and that's what happened," Arntson said. "We did enough to win the game, it just didn't work out."

Meanwhile, as the snow flies, the Rebels are preparing for this week's semifinals against Fairmont at U.S. Bank Stadium. Glyndon won a Prep Bowl state title years ago, but never as the western school of DGF.

"We preach focusing on the next play," said Soderberg, in his 15th season. "We've had our backs against the walls a few times and the kids have [risen] to the occasion. We're pretty calm. It's been kind of the norm."

That success was the norm for the Eskomos (11-1) this fall was unquestioned, as they accumulated over 4,200 yards in 12 games, including 68 touchdowns and a No. 1 state ranking most of the season. They have qualified for the state tournament every season since 2019.

In fact, of the 15 seniors who will graduate, a number of them - including Christensen, Witt and Hudspith - were a part of all of those state tournament squads.

"My whole life, I'll be able to look back and realize how much I enjoyed these days," Witt said. "It was the best time of my life. I wish I could go back and do it again."

"We've got a lot to be proud of in ourselves and what we've accomplished over the years," added Christensen. "We've come a long way since the start of our football careers. It's something I'm going to remember."

As will Hudspith, who on Saturday night, took a photo of his three section championship sweatshirts and medals alongside each other in his bedroom.

"I thought it would be a cool idea," said Hudspith, who may play football and throw for track and field at Gustavus Adolphus College next year. "It kind of sums it up. It was a privilege being a football player. It was a good run. We're like brothers."

"Obviously this wasn't the goal we had, but these guys changed the needle on our expectations," added Arntson, speaking highly of his seniors. "They had a really impressive run and laid the foundation for what we are trying to accomplish as a program."