A year ago, Isaac Mata caught the game-winning touchdown in a 30-28 double overtime victory against Northfield.
Wednesday night, the Faribault senior wide receiver/defensive back was honored before Faribault's clash with Northfield on senior night, and he cited that catch as his favorite memory on the football field.
Mata played an even better game Wednesday, although the collective performance from the Falcons removed any chance for another dramatic, memorable victory with Faribault running away with a 36-7 win to close the regular season and retain possession of the Cannon Trophy.
"Honestly, our offense was going, our momentum was going, our defense was on fire and we were making plays back and forth," Mata said. "We knew it was going to be a big game against them and we came out and hit em."
The game was seemingly over in the blink of an eye, with the quick-strike offense for the Falcons helping them to a 36-0 halftime lead before taking the foot off the accelerator in the second half.
Twice, that offense was set up by interceptions from Mata. With four minutes, 23 seconds left in the first quarter, Mata intercepted a third-down pass from Northfield's Soren Richardson to deliver Faribault the ball at Northfield's 27-yard line.
"Honestly, I read the coverage," Mata said. "I was watching film all weekend, all day, all week. Coach was telling me which plays were going to happen and I just had to make them. I made those plays."
Senior quarterback Hunter Nelson plunged into the end zone five plays later for a 5-yard touchdown run to push the Falcons in front 16-0 after the two-point conversion with 3:32 left in the first quarter.
Toward the end of the first half, the Raiders were driving in need of a touchdown to stop the bleeding and spur hope entering the second half. Richardson tried lofting a pass into the corner of the end zone to senior Tate Journell, but Mata leaped in front of the wide receiver for his second interception with 1:20 left in the opening half.
The Falcons then executed a five-play, 80-yard touchdown drive capped off by a 27-yard pass from Nelson to senior Jordan Klecker with 13 seconds left in the half to snag the 36-0 advantage.
"We needed those," Faribault coach Ned Louis said of Mata's interceptions. "Those were huge momentum swings early in the game when there weren't many scores. You get momentum going in your favor, you can really run with it in high school football and we did that in the first half. We just had so much momentum.
"They drove the ball quite a bit tonight, but once they got inside the 25 we made some big plays," Louis continued. "We sacked the quarterback a couple times and had the big interceptions. If you can turn people over like that and give it to our offense, we'll be in good shape."
Northfield was nearly the team to snatch that early-game momentum. On the first drive of the game, Faribault tried to pick up a fourth-and-two by handing off to its running back Matthias Lenway, who fumbled the ball to provide the Raiders with possession at their 40-yard line.
Faribault's defense then stepped up to stop Northfield on its own fourth-down attempt. When the Falcons were presented with another fourth-and-two situation on the next drive, they once again handed the ball to Lenway, who this time dashed away for a 41-yard touchdown for the first score of the game.
That big play was a harbinger of the rest of the half, which featured four plays of at least 40 yards. Junior Ian Ehlers hauled in a bubble screen and darted up the sideline for a 60-yard touchdown, Nelson connected with senior AJ Worrall for a 49-yard pass on the final scoring drive of the half and Nelson bombed an 85-yard touchdown down the sideline to a streaking Lenway.
"Hunter was right on the money," Louis said. "He only completed like five passes in the first half, but they were all for at least 40 or 50 yards."
While the 2021 win wasn't quite as dramatic as the 2020 contest, the victory doesn't carry any less significance for Louis and the Falcons.
"It means so much to our school, community and our team," Louis said. "We have the utmost respect for (Northfield's) football program. Any time you can let alone compete with them, but to beat them is a whole different thing. I'm so proud of our kids. They earned the Cannon tonight."
Entering the night, the directive was clear for Faribault: win to secure a first-round home game in the Section 2-4A playoffs.
After Thursday morning's coach's vote, the Falcons not only wrapped up the No. 4 seed, but also the No. 3 seed in the six-team section.
St. Peter was the other primary contender for the No. 3 seed, but the Saints suffered a 26-20 defeat against Jackson County Central — a Class AA school — on Wednesday. Jordan, meanwhile, won its third game in a row with a 35-20 victory against Tri-City United, and did enough to earn the No. 4 seed despite a 22-21 loss against St. Peter earlier this season.
Also winning Wednesday was Marshall — the section's lowest-ranked team according to the Quality Results Formula from minnesota-scores.net — with a 41-0 drubbing of Belle Plaine, making the No. 6 seed and Faribault's first-round opponent a solid opponent with a 4-4 record.
Before the bracket came out, Mata said his team is ready to compete no matter who the opponent was Tuesday, Oct. 26
"We're going to give it 100%," Mata said. "We're going to bring it to them, and no matter who it is we're still going to win."