EVELETH- The North Woods football team came close to pulling a David vs. Goliath upset in the first ever game for the new Rock Ridge squad, but they came up one rock short in a season-opening 20-14 …
EVELETH- The North Woods football team came close to pulling a David vs. Goliath upset in the first ever game for the new Rock Ridge squad, but they came up one rock short in a season-opening 20-14 road loss in Eveleth.
Light drizzle greeted the teams as they took the field last Thursday, but it had little effect on two squads that were both dependent on their running games. Excitement was high as the Class 7AAA Wolverines, who will switch to 7AAAA when Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia high schools combine under one roof, took the opening kickoff and marched 79 yards against the 7A Grizzlies for a 12-yard touchdown, clinched by junior back Ryan Manninen.
“We got caught out of position a time or two, got caught looking in the backfield, and that offense tries to misdirect as much as they can,” North Woods Head Coach Joel Anderson said. “That’s a tough opponent when we’re not at full strength and you’re playing that many classes up.”
And after North Woods went four-and-out on its first possession, it looked like the outsized visitors were in for a long, long night. But one should never take a cornered grizzly bear for granted.
North Woods defenders stood tough on the next Rock Ridge series, forcing a punt on fourth-and-11 that handed the ball to the Grizzlies offense at their own 46.
The offensive line, playing shorthanded due to injuries and illness, gave T.J. Chiabotti the crease he was looking for and the senior running back gave the Grizzlies the big play they needed, streaking 54 yards for the score. The conversion attempt failed, but with 2:21 left in the first quarter, the score was tied 6-6.
“T.J. is phenomenal at finding the hole and exposing it and making the right cuts,” Anderson said. “He’s a very tough back to bring down. I think everybody, myself included, was waiting for one or two more of those.”
But it was on defense where Chiabotti turned in his next big play.
Rock Ridge came up empty when the Grizzlies stiffened on a drive that reached the North Woods 6-yard-line before stalling, but the Wolverines were back in business at the Grizzlies 49 after a North Woods punt.
Rock Ridge quarterback Dylan Hedley tried catching the Grizzlies off guard with a first-down pass, but the play didn’t fool Chiabotti, who intercepted the ball and raced down the sideline all the way to the Rock Ridge 7. Two plays later, Chiabotti was in the end zone for a touchdown on a one-yard plunge, then tacked on the two-point conversion with an acrobatic spin to shed a Wolverines defender. The Rock Ridge crowd was stunned into silence as the underdog Grizzlies held a 14-6 advantage with just over five minutes remaining in the half.
Rock Ridge struck back in short order, taking only two plays to move from their own 33 to the North Woods 29, and two plays later Manninen scored on a 24-yard jaunt to pull the Wolverines within two, 14-12. The conversion attempt failed, leaving the Grizzlies on top at the half.
The second half was one of missed opportunities for North Woods. Jared Chiabotti had a scintillating return on the opening kickoff of the second half, taking it all the way to the Rock Ridge 27. But the Grizzlies failed to convert, turning the ball over on downs when quarterback Ty Fabisch was sacked on on a fourth-down pass attempt.
Wolverine defenders came up big again on the next North Woods possession, stopping Chiabotti short of a first down on a fourth-and-two run from the North Woods 43. Working with a short field, Rock Ridge regained the lead on Manninen’s third touchdown of the night, an 11-yard dash. Griffin Dosan ran for the conversion, and with 2:35 remaining in the third quarter the Wolverines were back on top 20-14.
With North Woods unable to mount a passing game, Rock Ridge stacked its defenders at the line to effectively shackle Chiabotti. The Grizzlies defense held strong as well, forcing two fumbles and holding Rock Ridge scoreless the rest of the way, but the Wolverines held North Woods at bay to close out their first-ever victory.
“Their numbers, their size, they started to wear us down,” Anderson said. “We had a lot of guys going both ways for pretty much every play of that game, and we battled hard. They’re a good football team. I wish we would have capitalized on some of those fumbles, but with the group we had in the game and what we had to prepare with, we played a heck of a football game. We’re one missed tackle away from winning that game.”
As expected, T.J. Chiabotti was the team’s primary offensive weapon, carrying the ball 25 times for 168 yards, a 6.7-yards-per-carry average. He also led the team on defense with eight unassisted tackles, two more than Anevay Goodksy-Spears. Fabish and Jake Panichi both recovered fumbles.