WINNER — Considering it was the only state semifinal football game Friday night featuring two 10-0 teams, it was appropriate that Winner and Webster Area traded proverbial punches.
And despite a 24-0 lead in the first half, second-seeded Winner withstood a flurry of Bearcat big plays to cut the lead down to 30-27. That was before Brady Fritz’s 25-yard touchdown run with 1 minute, 52 seconds remaining sealed a 38-27 Class 11B state semifinal victory for Winner.
Appearing in their third state championship game in five years, Winner (11-0) will play top-seeded Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan (11-0) in the Class 11B title contest at 3:30 p.m. Friday at Dykhouse Stadium in Brookings.
“It’s a great feeling for our team, knowing we’re going to have a chance to play for a championship,” said Trevor Peters, who ran for 180 yards on 28 carries and three touchdowns.
Powered by Peters, Winner racked up 356 yards of total offense -- all rushing -- on 63 carries. He had a key 5-yard touchdown run with 5:06 remaining in the game that put Winner up 30-19.
But the third-seeded Bearcats (10-1) did what they had done all night: found a big play at a key moment. On the ensuing kickoff return, Austin Moen took a reverse handoff 80 yards for a convincing answer. Braden Holland’s two-point run trimmed the lead to 30-27 with less than 5 minutes left, and Winner coach Dan Aaker knew it was make-or-break time for his Warriors.
“You could tell we were looking at each other, and our seniors and our leaders stepped up and helped us close out the game,” he said.
The closeout drive was led by Peters, who had a key conversion on 4th-and-1 at the Winner 45 with 2:45 left. That set the table for Fritz to scramble across the field and into the end zone three plays later for the score to which the Bearcats could not answer. On the next possession, Preston Norrid stole the ball from a Bearcats receiver for the game-clinching turnover.
“We knew we had to stop them and that was a tough task for us tonight,” Webster Area coach Tanner Christensen said.
Trailing 6-0 after a Sam Kruger touchdown run, Webster Area went for three fourth-down conversions and came up empty on all three, including a fake punt try on 4th-and-2 from the Warrior 43-yard-line.
The Warriors promptly responded with an 11-play drive -- all running plays -- capped with a 1-yard scoring plunge from Trevor Peters. Winner then followed up a poor Webster punt with a quick six-play, 56-yard drive and another 3-yard touchdown run from Peters. An accidental kneeldown on a Webster punt with 1:10 remaining in the first half gave Winner a safety, and a 24-0 lead before the Bearcats finally got a big play.
Facing a 4th-and-20 with 4 seconds left, Austin Moen salvaged the Bearcats’ first half, hauling in a Hail Mary-throw from Braden Holland. Moen caught the ball and lunged to the end zone, making it 24-6 at halftime.
“We knew we needed a big play to end the half, and to get the touchdown catch, that just gave our guys the lift we needed,” Christensen said. “That swung things for us.”
In the third quarter, Webster Area’s good fortune continued. Holland scrambled on a 3rd-and-23 from the Winner 46 and carried the ball inside the 5-yard-line before losing the ball forward into the end zone. Moen was again in the right spot for the Bearcats, recovering the ball for a touchdown, and trimming the Winner lead to 24-12 with 5:21 left in the third quarter.
“We played pretty well defensively but they had three big plays that changed the game for them,” Aaker said. “We knew they were capable of that and you have to give a team that can do that a lot of credit.”
Winner had 209 yards rushing in the first half, including 113 yards on 15 carries from Peters. Philip Jorgensen ran for 76 yards on 19 carries, and Kruger had 63 yards rushing on 11 carries for the Warriors. Oscar Pravecek had 10 tackles, while Landon Thieman had seven for Winner’s defense.
For Webster Area, which had 257 total yards, Holland was 8-for-18 passing for 65 yards. Coby Reetz ran for 93 yards on 17 carries, while Holland added 66 yards on 11 carries.