Birds back on top: Mahnomen-Waubun headed back to the Class A state tournament after dominating Ada-Borup-West

Mahnomen-Waubun's 30 unanswered points were enough to clinch its second 8A title since merging programs in 2018.

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Captains Tanner Pazdernik (left), Will Olson (middle) and Justin Littlewolf hoist the Section 8A trophy after Mahnomen-Waubun beat Ada-Borup-West 30-7 on Friday night at the Fargodome. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

Mahnomen-Waubun head football coach John Clark Jr. is no stranger to success in section championship games. But Thursday night might have been one of his team's toughest tests over his 20 years of coaching.

After losing the regular-season meeting against Ada-Borup-West (8-2) 33-12, the Thunderbirds (9-1) left no doubt as they head back to the Class A state tournament for the second time since joining as a co-op program in 2018.

"Our attitude woke us up," Clark Jr. said. "We found out we weren't as good as we thought we thought we were. Sometimes that's the best thing for you. The kids improved every week. You could just see us getting better, and getting (Will Starkey) back healthy helped a lot. He played on one leg and hobbled tonight. He's a big boost just for morale."

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Dennis Ashley (right) braces for contact during Mahnomen-Waubun's 30-7 Section 8A championship win over Ada-Borup-West on Nov. 4, 2021 at the Fargodome. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)


Through the first six minutes of the first quarter, it looked as if the Cougars would repeat what they did against Mahnomen-Waubun in the regular season. After the Thunderbirds turned the ball over at the A-B-W 26-yard line, Beau Fetting took the first play of the drive 74-yards to the house.

"They got that first (touchdown) because we got so jacked up and out of position," Clark Jr. said. "That kid is going to go to the house if you're out of position. We've seen that here too many times. I thought we settled down and were gap-responsible. I thought we wore them down a little bit. You could just tell, as the game went on, our confidence rose a little bit."

From there, it was all Mahnomen-Waubun. The Thunderbirds answered with a punishing scoring drive capped off by a Tanner Pazdernik three-yard touchdown run. Pazdernik connected with Will Olson through the air on the two-point conversion to go up 8-7 with 27 seconds left in the first quarter.

"It's just winning the next play." Clark Jr. said. "That's what this group did. They scored, and we answered back with a big, long and grinding drive. We got the two-point conversion and got the lead. I think that drive gave our kids a ton of confidence."

After allowing the longest play from scrimmage on its first defensive series, the Mahnomen-Waubun defense tightened up. The Thunderbirds forced a turnover on downs at their 21-yard line, which set up a 45-yard touchdown pass from Pazdernik to Olson.

"When we played them in the regular season, we called the exact same play," Olson said. "I dropped it that time. We called it again with the same setup, and it worked. I'm glad I got that second chance."


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Braxton Quall (left) and Dennis Ashley (right) celebrate Will Olson's 45-yard touchdown catch in Mahnomen-Waubun's 30-7 Section 8A championship win over Ada-Borup-West on Nov. 4, 2021 at the Fargodome. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

A-B-W nearly drove the length of the field on its next possession. On fourth-and-goal from the Mahnomen-Waubun four-yard line, Aiden Marcussen's pass fell incomplete, sending the Thunderbirds into halftime with a 14-7 lead.

Starkey, a running back converted to an offensive lineman, is recovering from a torn ACL he suffered last basketball season. He returned to the field this fall to help put Mahnomen-Waubun over the top. On the Thunderbirds' first offensive drive of the third quarter, he broke off a 50-yard scamper before Pazdernik punched in a one-yard touchdown run. Olson caught his second two-point conversion pass of the night to put Mahnomen-Waubun up 22-7.

Mahnomen-Waubun’s offensive line was able to get a push off the line of scrimmage from start to finish.

"They're awesome, and I love them to death," Pazdernik said of his offensive line. "They're great guys, and we can't do it without them.


Pazdernik ran in his fourth total touchdown of the game on Mahnomen-Waubun's next offensive series. He ended the night with three touchdowns on the ground and one through the air.

"He's a senior captain that stepped up," Clark Jr. said. "That kid is a warrior. He took a beating out there, but he just kept running and grinding out first downs. That's exactly what you need to do against an explosive offense like Ada. I thought our offense was a very big help to our defense."

The Mahnomen-Waubun defense didn't surrender a point following the game's opening touchdown with 7:42 left in the first quarter. The Thunderbirds were better prepared for A-B-W's rushing offense this time around.

The final score seems lopsided considering the season A-W-B had. Not only did the Cougars beat Mahnomen-Waubun by three touchdowns in their first meeting, but they also earned the top seed in Section 8A. The Thunderbirds had to go through third-seeded Polk County West in the semifinals to get a chance at a rematch.

"We came in better mentally," Pazdernik said. "We were more prepared, and we were just a lot better. It feels great to know we get another crack at a state championship."

Clark Jr. is headed back to the state tournament for the 13th time in his 20 years of coaching. Before Mahnomen-Mahnomen-Waubun merged football programs for the 2018 season, Clark Jr. had won his last eighth section championship games at the helm of the Mahnomen Indians. His section championship streak is up to 10, as the Thunderbirds look to repeat history from 2018.


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Will Olson (left) reaches across the goal line during his 45-yard touchdown catch-and-run in Mahnomen-Waubun's 30-7 Section 8A championship win over Ada-Borup-West on Nov. 4, 2021 at the Fargodome. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

"You have to give all of the credit to the kids," Clark Jr. said. "We have hard-nosed, tough kids that love to play football. It shows in games, it shows in practice and it shows in school. They're good kids."

In Mahnomen-Waubun's first year as a co-op program, the Thunderbirds won the Class A state championship over BOLD 22-21. This is their first time getting back to the state tournament as they will play in the quarterfinals on Friday against the Section 5A champion at Monticello.

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Will Olson (left) leads Will Starkey to the red zone on Starkey's 50-yard carry in the third quarter during Mahnomen-Waubun's 30-7 Section 8A championship win over Ada-Borup-West on Nov. 4, 2021 at the Fargodome. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

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Will Starkey dives for the end zone but comes up a yard short during Mahnomen-Waubun's 30-7 Section 8A championship win over Ada-Borup-West on Nov. 4, 2021 at the Fargodome. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

Jared Rubado is the sports editor for the Detroit Lakes Tribune and the Perham Focus. He moved to the area in September of 2021 after covering sports for the Alexandria Echo Press for nearly three years. Jared graduated from the University of Augustana in 2018 with degrees in journalism and sports managment.
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