It may not have been the cleanest or best game, but it was solid nonetheless. Medford, which featured a terrific defense all season, bounced back from a loss last week to earn its first shutout of the season.
The third-seeded Tigers ran well. They defended well and overcame a few mistakes to beat sixth-seeded New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva 21-0 in a quarterfinal of the Section 2AA tournament Tuesday night.
One of the most well-defended plays that could have turned into an interception came on a NRHEG wide receiver pass back to the quarterback. Panther wideout Porter Peterson caught a screen pass then heaved it back across the field to QB Kordell Schlaak. Tiger defensive end Gavin Hermes was blanketing Schlaak in coverage and in position to make the catch, yet had it go right between his hands to fall incomplete.
“We have a little joke going around that he has the best hands on the team,” Medford senior Josiah Hedensten said. “The offensive lineman make fun of our receivers for dropping passes every once in a while. So he always says he has the best hands. Right there, that’s a chance to prove it.”
Apart from the near interception, Hermes led a quartet of defensive linemen — Bryce Grayson, Dylan Heiderschedit and Brennon Hoffman — which made it tough for the Panthers to do much of anything on offense.
“Most of our linebackers like sitting back because we can read (the play) better,” Hedensten said. “Our D-Line gets good enough rush up front where (the other team) has to try and find those holes.”
Hedensten, Brayden Breede and Ernesto Lazaro all came up with pass deflections on third or fourth down to preserve the shutout when the Panthers were threatening to score.
Medford head coach Jerome Johannes said the defense had probably its best performance of the year in limiting NRHEG to only 16 yards of total offense.
“From our D-Line to our linebackers, they watch a lot of film and they just know exactly what is going on,” Johannes said. “There is not a lot of times you can trick our defense.”
The Tigers started quick. After forcing a NRHEG three-and-out on the first possession, Hedensten darted for a 34-yard rushing touchdown on Medford’s first offensive play.
Despite coughing up a pair of fumbles, the Tigers were able to keep the Panthers off the scoreboard early with the help of a penalty negating an apparent touchdown on third-and-goal, which was followed by Schlaak being sacked for 23 yards on the ensuing play.
“We gave them opportunities early,” Johannes said. “But every time we gave them an opportunity, we took it away from too.”
Medford junior quarterback Justin Ristau then scored on a 35-yard run to provide the Tigers a 14-0 lead with 10:35 seconds left in the first half.
On the very next Panther drive, the Tigers gave the Panthers more second chances. Forcing a punt on fourth-and-4, the Tigers were called for a 5-yard running into the kicker penalty. Fortunately for the Tigers, the Panthers went nowhere and forced to punt again.
In the third quarter, Paulson ran off the right tackle for a 14-yard score that raise Medford’s cushion to 21-0.
The off-tackle carries piled up and so did the yards for the Tigers. Paulson led the way with 21 attempts for 124 yards. Hedensten added 94 yards on 12 attempts and Ristau finished with 46 yards on five attempts.
“It helps when have two running backs that also like to block a little bit,” Johannes said. “They block for each other and they get off that off-tackle play (with room to run).”
With the victory, Medford advances to the Section 2AA semifinals at 1 p.m. Saturday in Mapleton against second-seeded Maple River — which beat seventh-seeded Janesville-Waldorf-Pemberton 20-0 on Tuesday — barring any cancellation.
“We’ll show up (Wednesday) if they allow us to and just continue playing until they rip us off the field,” Johannes said.