Fergus Falls gave the Detroit Lakes football team all it could handle and then some in the home opener on Friday night.
After dropping last year's matchup 24-0, the Otters got their revenge with a 29-15 win over its district rival. It's a loss that Detroit Lakes head coach Reed Hefta hopes can be filled with teaching moments.
"At the end of the day, you ask your guys to bring their best," Hefta said. "It doesn't always go the way you want it to. Like I just told the team, you learn a lot through losses. You learn even more through bonding together. You can let this be a division between your team or not. We played a heck of a Fergus Falls team that got the ball into their athletes' hands. How we respond to that comes next. We had a lot of good, teachable moments."
After turning the ball over on downs on the first possession of the game, Detroit Lakes sophomore Mason Carrier forced a fumble on Fergus Falls' first offensive play of the season. It was the tone-setter the defense needed to stand on its head.
"We want to be as dynamic as we possibly can on offense, defense and special teams," Hefta said. "It was a cool thing for us to get a turnover on our first play on defense. Mason Carrier lays a heck of a hit out there, and he's a heck of a player. We want to be aggressive, and it's good to see the defense step up to the plate for that challenge."
From the first snap, the Lakers' front seven did an excellent job of stopping Fergus Falls' run offense and getting pressure on quarterback Carter Thielke. However, big plays began to bite early in the second quarter.
After several long gains, Thielke scampered into the endzone on the second play of the second quarter to put Fergus Falls up 7-0 following the PAT.
TOUCHDOWN: Thielke reverses field on the second play of the first half for a touchdown. Otters lead 7-0 after the extra point. 11:49 left in the first half. pic.twitter.com/aYyt5q5ABm— Jared Rubado (@DLtribSports) September 4, 2021
"Our goal was to stop the run, and we did," Hefta said. "Unfortunately, they got to us with the pass. They got the better of us. It's just one of those things where we take it in stride. It's obviously a time to be bitter about situations like this. But we have a choice. We can let this be a hole in the ship or a way to bond us together."
Fergus Falls struck again with under five minutes left in the half. On third down, Thielke threw up a jump-ball for senior Cole Zierden, who made an impressive catch over the head of Lakers' cornerback Chris Breeden.
"Breeden made a heck of a play," Hefta said. "There's not a kid I'd trust more in that situation, and sometimes the bounces don't go your way."
Trailing 14-0 at halftime, Hefta needed a spark. On the opening kickoff, he sent junior Evan Thomas onto the field for an onside kick attempt. Thomas, who was less than 24 hours removed from playing goalie for the Detroit Lakes boys soccer team, booted the ball off the helmet of an Otter and recovered the loose football.
"I remember watching the Super Bowl with the (New Orleans) Saints and seeing them do that," Hefta said. "It's something I've always wanted to do, and we like pushing the envelope. It's fun because those are things our opponents have to prepare for, and our kids get excited to run them. Evan Thomas is a goalie one day and converting onside kicks for us the next. I love it."
Despite the opening drive of the second half turning into a punt, the Lakers finally got on the board with a short touchdown run from senior Gavin Smith. The drive was ignited by Carrier, who came in at quarterback and broke off several long runs to set up the red zone opportunity for Smith's first score of the season. Carrier punched in the two-point conversion to cut the deficit to six.
TOUCHDOWN: Gavin Smith punches in the first score of the season. Lakers hammer the run, with Mason Carrier getting the brunt of the carries. He also punched in the two-point conversion. Otters lead 14-8 with 3:28 left in the third quarter. pic.twitter.com/unWxGknWyF— Jared Rubado (@DLtribSports) September 4, 2021
"He's a guy that takes on challenges," Hefta said of Carrier. "He's got a chip on his shoulder, and he's a battler. You can ask him to do anything, and he'll do it. He'd drive the bus and serve popcorn at halftime if he had to. He's just a kid you trust to do anything."
After another defensive stand, Carrier led the offense down the field again. But on his longest run of the game for 32 yards, Carrier needed help getting off the field with a lower-body injury. He did not return to the game on offense or defense.
Senior Bradly Swiers started the game at quarterback for Detroit Lakes but also left the game with an apparent injury. In the fourth quarter, he returned under center and found the junior tight end, Hunter Korth, with a jump pass for a touchdown on fourth down. Thomas drilled the PAT to give Detroit Lakes a 15-14 lead.
TOUCHDOWN: On 4th-and-short, Swiers throws a jump pass to TE Hunter Korth. Evan Thomas drills the PAT. Lakers now lead 15-14. What a second half for Detroit Lakes pic.twitter.com/p4qTVijNZL— Jared Rubado (@DLtribSports) September 4, 2021
"He's been rock solid in every sport he plays," Hefta said of Swiers finishing the game at quarterback. "He's one of the hardest workers I've ever seen. You can see the grit behind that kid's eyes."
Thielke led Fergus Falls down the field on the Otters' ensuing drive before running in the go-ahead touchdown from three yards out. The drive was kept alive on a 36-yard pass from Thielke to Owen Babolian on third down.
The Otters got the ball back deep in their territory with under three minutes left. On third down and needing 19 yards to ice the game, Thielke connected with Zierden again. This time, it went 71-yards for a dagger touchdown.
"Those long-distance plays are the ones that get you," Hefta said. "There are many different adjustments you can make on that. We went with our base (defense) because it's early in the year, and you hope to add to those things. It's bitter, and it stinks, but it's a good feeling to know what you need to get better at."