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Halloween havoc: Detroit Lakes dethrones defending Class AAAA champs in gutsy fashion

Trailing by 14 point points against the reigning Class AAAA state champions, the Detroit Lakes football team flipped the switch and outscored Rocori 21-6 in the final two and a half quarters. Detroit Lakes' win sets up its third trip to the Section 8AAAA championship in its last four eligible seasons, and will look to upset top-ranked Becker.

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Ethan Carrier runs in a 16-yard touchdown in the first half of Detroit Lakes' 21-20 win over Rocori in the Section 8AAAA semifinals on Oct. 29, 2021. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)
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After a run of 729 days, Class AAAA will have a new state football champion. All because Detroit Lakes said so.

The third-seeded Lakers hit the road to spoil Rocori's (5-4) bid at back-to-back state championships with a 21-20 win in the Section 8AAAA semifinal round. For the second straight game, Detroit Lakes overcame a two-touchdown deficit with its bend-don't-break defense and an offense determined to win every play.

"I'm just proud," Lakers' head coach Reed Hefta said. "I'm proud of the boys, and I'm proud of the way they played. We came out here and played a dang good Rocori team. Nothing is given. We had to fight for everything we got today. I'm very proud of that."

Rocori started the second quarter with a touchdown to take a 14-0 lead. Senior Brady Blattner ran in a one-yard score to pin the Lakers on their heels.

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On Detroit Lakes' next drive, senior quarterback Bradly Swiers hit Christian Solberg streaking down the center of the field for a 58-yard catch-and-run touchdown. Junior Evan Thomas nailed the first of his three point-after-touchdown kicks to cut Rocori's lead in half.

"We got off to a slow start again, and that's something that will have to change going into the section championship," Swiers said. "You can point to this or that or whatever, but it was our attitude. Our attitude changed, and we wanted it. We talked about who wanted it more, and it was us. We wanted it more tonight."

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Charlie Kalina (left) and Brandton Marsh (right) celebrate Christian Solberg's (middle) touchdown in the second quarter of Detroit Lakes' 21-20 win over Rocori in the Section 8AAAA semifinals on Oct. 29, 2021. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

Rocori drove deep into Laker territory on its next possession but turned the ball over on downs after senior Caden Yliniemi broke up Jack Spanier's pass to Hunter Nistler in the end zone.

"We switched to man coverage and started locking them down," Yliniemi said. That helped us to quit letting them have the short routes. We just played well from there. I knew he was going to go out and up. I kind of anticipated it, went up and hit it away."

Detroit Lakes tied the game 14-14 on its next possession with a 16-yard touchdown run from junior Ethan Carrier. Solberg got the Lakers in the red zone with a 30-yard run a play earlier.

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The Spartans nickeled and dimed their way down the field for the third straight possession to end the first half. With 37 seconds left on the clock, Spanier dropped back to pass, but tucked the ball for a six-yard touchdown run to give Rocori a six-point halftime lead.

On Rocori's final drive of the first half, Solberg was helped off the field. He returned in the second half despite favoring his leg. Swiers knew it would take a lot more for one of his favorite targets to sit out the rest of Saturday's game.

"He's awesome, and he's a great option to go to all the time," Swiers said. "You know he's playing his hardest no matter what. When he went down, I knew he would come back, or someone would step up. I have all the confidence in these guys."

The Lakers forced a three-and-out on Rocori's first possession of the third quarter but were pinned at their own 17-yard line on a rolling punt. After a couple of first downs, the Lakers needed eight yards to move the chains on fourth down from midfield. Yliniemi, the punter, kept the ball for himself and ran it 10-yards to keep the drive alive.

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Caden Yliniemi (left) eyes a tackle on Hunter Nistler in the first half of Detroit Lakes' 21-20 win over Rocori in the Section 8AAAA semifinals on Oct. 29, 2021. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

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"I looked at Hefta and gave him a nod," Yliniemi said. "We knew right then that we were going to run that play. It feels great to know they have the confidence in me to get the first down there."

Detroit Lakes' gutsy play-calling paid off as the offense punched in a one-yard touchdown run with 2:47 left in the third quarter. The Lakers ran a formation where all 11 guys on offense sprinted to the line of scrimmage. Swiers gave a quick handoff to sophomore Mason Carrier, who got the one-yard needed for the game-tying touchdown. Thomas put the Lakers ahead with the PAT.

Detroit Lakes used the hurry-up formation three times on Saturday. The first two worked for first downs, while the third provided the game-winning touchdown.

"Get up to the line, get the ball in our big guys' hands and make sure it's quick," Hefta said of the offensive formation on Mason Carrier's touchdown. "If you're quick and you know you can get a push, it keeps teams on the ropes."

The Detroit Lakes defense had another tale of two halves. The Lakers closed out the final two quarters without giving up a point after getting torched by Rocori's dynamic offense in the first 24 minutes. The Spartans turned the ball over on downs three times in the final 12 minutes, with two of those drives ending inside the Lakers' 28-yard line.

"These schemes stayed the same, but the intensity got better," Hefta said. "Our guys really started to buckle down and do the things we ask them to do. It's tough to play man coverage against some of the best receivers in the section."

While a one-point cushion ended up being enough, it certainly wasn't comfortable. The offensive play calling went from high risk, high reward to ball security and clock management. Detroit Lakes put a laboring Solberg at quarterback in the wildcat formation on its final two drives on first and second downs.

"Isn't he a warrior? He just went out there and battled for this team tonight," Hefta said of Solberg. "I'm just so proud of the grit in these guys and how they go out there and just battle. You have to be so proud of that as a coach or a fan watching that."

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Gavin Smith (left) and Jeff Moen (right)tackle Mason Dahl in Detroit Lakes' 21-20 win over Rocori in the Section 8AAAA semifinals on Oct. 29, 2021. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

With under a minute left, the Lakers got the game-clinching first down inside the Rocori 20-yard line.

"They're such a resilient group of young men," Hefta said of his team completing another comeback. "We ask a lot out of them, and there's a lot of time delegated to this throughout the year. They handle adversity well. There are bumps in every road. We had a group of young men that had some good passes thrown at them. (Rocori) has a great quarterback and receivers. Our guys did a good job of responding to them and continued to be consistent. We were able to get after it and play Laker football."

For the seniors, each playoff game is another chance to buy 48 more minutes on the field. While Saturday's outcome looked bleak early on, the Lakers banded together to buy 11 kids at least one more game.

"Man, these younger kids just stepped up for us seniors today," Yliniemi said. "It feels great, and now we get to go up against Becker and hope for the best. If we practice hard this week, good things will happen."

"It didn't really hit me until this morning that this could be my last (game)," Swiers said. "It makes you play a little harder and a little better. It was definitely in my mind tonight."

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Jacob Ehnert celebrates a Rocori three-and-out in the fourth quarter of Detroit Lakes' 21-20 win over Rocori in the Section 8AAAA semifinals on Oct. 29, 2021. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

Following each playoff win, the hill gets steeper. For Detroit Lakes, the hill might be the steepest it's ever been as they go head-to-head with Class AAAA's No. 1-ranked Becker (9-0). The top-seeded Bulldogs took care of business on Saturday against fourth-seeded St. Cloud Apollo by a score of 51-7.

"The job is not done," Hefta said. "We have to know that we can hang with teams regardless of who they are, but we have to be physical. Becker is going to be a team that's going to put us on the edge. We have to be so smart and so sound. We have got to keep playing physical, Laker football."

DETROIT LAKES 0 14 7 0 - 21

ROCORI 8 12 0 0 - 20

SCORING- FIRST QUARTER- ROCORI- Mason Dahl 26-yard TD run, Brady Blattner two-point conversion run, 8-0, 5:43; SECOND QUARTER- ROCORI- Blattner 1-yard TD run, conversion no good, 14-0, 10:41; DETROIT LAKES- Bradley Swiers 58-yard TD pass to Christian Solberg, Evan Thomas PAT good, 14-7, 9:51; DETROIT LAKES- Ethan Carrier 16-yard TD run, Thomas PAT good, 14-14, 2:16; ROCORI- Spanier 6-yard TD run, conversion no good, 20-14, 0:37; THIRD QUARTER- DETROIT LAKES- Mason Carrier 1-yard TD run, Thomas PAT good, 21-20, 2:47

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Brock Okeson tackles the Rocori punt returner in the first half of Detroit Lakes' 21-20 win over Rocori in the Section 8AAAA semifinals on Oct. 29, 2021. (Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune)

Related Topics: FOOTBALL
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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