SYRACUSE — There was no need for last-ditch overtime heroics for the Cambridge Indians on Friday.
Leaning on a Herculean effort by the big fellas up front, the Indians got their mitts on the Class D state football championship plaque for the second year in a row.
Cambridge overcame two second-half turnovers and used a ground-and-pound attack to defeat Maple Grove 26-14 for the Indians’ second straight state title victory over the Red Dragons. Cambridge, which finished the season 12-1, is the first Section II team to win back-to-back state football championships.
“It feels amazing to represent Cambridge and Section II, to come out and get that repeat championship, and show what football really means in a small town and prove that we’re some of the best out there,” said senior lineman Max Hoffer, who was named the game’s most valuable player.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” said a smiling Tommy English, one of four main ballcarriers for the Indians. “It’s nice to be back and bring it home for Cambridge — they’ve been with us since mid-August.”
“Right from the beginning, we felt a lot more comfortable coming in this year than we did last year,” said Indians head coach Doug Luke, whose team has won 25 of its last 26 games. “We came in feeling good about ourselves — we knew if we played well, we could beat this team. We were just hoping last year.”
Cambridge rolled up 465 total yards — 279 on the ground, with three backs topping 70 yards: Colton Dean (78 yards), Jonas Butz (73) and English (72). Dean scored two touchdowns and Tyler Linendoll added another.
However, the Indians had to survive two of their own mistakes before they could wrap up their title repeat.
First, English had the ball ripped from his grasp and recovered by Maple Grove’s Alex Duncanson near the end of the third quarter. The Red Dragons went three-and-out.
Then, a near-disaster — quarterback Zack Rowland tried throwing the ball away while being sacked. Easton Tanner picked off the pass and returned it 55 yards for a touchdown to pull the Red Dragons within 19-14 with 10:13 left in the game.
Suddenly, it was a one-possession game, and Rowland admitted it wasn’t his smartest decision ever.
“It was just the adrenaline and I took my first instinct to get rid of the ball,” said Rowland, a senior who completed 7 of 10 passes for 186 yards and a touchdown. “I didn’t see number 4 (Tanner) there.”
Fortunately, Rowland has a short memory.
“Coach (Chad) Burr pulled me aside and told me to just put it out of my head,” Rowland said. “I totally forgot about it.”
“You make a mistake like he made, well, you have to put that in the past and not worry about it, come back out and we’ll run it down the field,” Luke said. “Zack had a good year — he made one mistake, and I’m glad he’s not going to be remembered for it.”
The Indians put the ball in the hands of their powerful running game, riding a no-huddle attack to grind out 68 yards in 14 plays. Dean capped the drive with a 9-yard touchdown run, leaping over a defender at the goal line. Helen Mooney’s extra point gave Cambridge a 26-14 lead with 4:50 left to play.
“Because things had been going that way for us during the playoffs, I thought, ‘Boy, maybe that mojo is coming,’” Maple Grove head coach Curt Fischer said. “Unfortunately it didn’t.”
English got his own bit of redemption three minutes later, when he picked off a pass by Tanner, allowing the Indians to run out the clock.
“That was like a big weight off my shoulders,” the junior said.
Cambridge had opened the scoring on the second play of the game when Rowland found Brenden Holcomb wide open in the left flat for a 65-yard touchdown pass on a pick play.
“(Jacob) Peters and Jonas (Butz) set great picks, they just brushed them off, I got across and Zack had time to throw it, and it was off to the races from there,” said Holcomb, who was chosen as the game’s most outstanding offensive back.
Maple Grove (11-2) responded with a 13-play, 80-yard drive that was capped by a 5-yard touchdown pass from Tanner to Zach Fischer for a 7-7 tie.
The Indians scored twice in the second quarter, on short runs by Dean and Linendoll for a 19-7 halftime lead.
Defensively, Cambridge held Maple Grove to 237 total yards, limiting 6-3, 210-pound Nick Fabrizio to 75 yards on 19 rushes. Fabrizio had scored all three of the Red Dragons’ touchdowns in last year’s state final, won by the Indians in double OT, 22-21.
“He runs hard — he’s a big dude, the biggest guy we’ve seen all year in Class D at running back,” said Holcomb, the Indians’ middle linebacker. “We knew if we could get down around his legs and slow him down, we could limit his first downs.”
“They run a really good offense, just getting downhill on us — that’s scary because they can throw the ball out of that, too,” said Hoffer, who made a huge fourth-down stop with a sack of Tanner in the third quarter, when Maple Grove had reached Cambridge's red zone. “They had a lot of drives where we got them behind schedule and we made those stops on third and fourth downs. I don’t think they were ever out of the game.”
The game marks the end of the football careers for a remarkable group of Cambridge seniors, including Hoffer, Holcomb, Rowland, Butz, Dean and several others.
“I don’t know if we’ve ever had a better class of kids than this senior class,” Luke said. “Right from the beginning, they worked their tails off and this is what they deserve. I couldn’t wish anything better for them.”