By PATRICK SLACK
After 28 years without a home playoff game, Tuesday night’s tilt in Little Falls provided a few decades’ worth of postseason drama in the opening round of the Section 8AAAA tournament.
But after the Flyers withstood numerous knockout attempts by Rocori, the visiting Spartans managed to scrape by 24-21.
The game got off to an ominous start, as Rocori snatched the early momentum by recovering a pooch kickoff on its way to a 6-0 lead just 29 seconds in.
Little Falls bounced back quickly, though, tying the score late in the first on a 39-yard run by senior Jalen Wuchko, who made his return to the lineup after missing two games due to injury.
Juniors Austin Fenske and Bryce Zawatzke connected on a 12-yard pass early in the second quarter as the Flyers carried a 13-12 advantage into the half, but a second-half surge put Rocori ahead 24-13 early in the fourth quarter, with the ball deep in Little Falls territory.
The Spartans nearly opened up a three-possession lead, but the Flyers’ defense held off consecutive passes in the back of the end zone, producing a shift in momentum.
With renewed life, Little Falls marched 93 yards down the field in about four and a half minutes, capping the drive with another touchdown strike from Fenske to Zawatzke from six yards out.
The duo then connected one more time for the two-point conversion, cutting the gap to 24-21 with 5:43 remaining.
The Flyers were able to force a Rocori punt near midfield to get the ball back on their own 23 with two minutes to play, but the Spartans forced a turnover on downs to seemingly end things.
Little Falls wasn’t quite done though, forcing a fumble to give itself one last-ditch attempt, but Rocori’s defense held on to close the game.
Wuchko amassed 167 yards rushing on 26 carries before being severely limited with injury in the second half.
Junior Brighton Goodrich stepped in with 46 yards on 14 carries, senior Trysten Ross picked up 28 yards on three attempts and sophomore Thomas Miller had a 21-yard rush.
Ross also grabbed three passes for 36 yards, with senior Kyle Kabanuk the leading receiver with 42 yards.
Little Falls outgained Rocori 369-302, but the Spartans had a 4-1 edge in turnover differential in the slick conditions.
It was the first home playoff game since 1985 for Little Falls, which earned the third seed in the section, playing against the sixth-seeded Spartans.
The Flyers finished the season with a record of 4-5, taking third place in the Granite Ridge Conference.
Seniors on this year’s team included Michael Fregin, Ross, Austin Olson, Lucas Cofell, Easton Johnson, Wuchko, Tony Andres, William Groshong, Dane Peterson, Derek McMahan, Seth Kaiser and Tyler Gastecki.
Rocori 24, Little Falls 21
Rocori 6 6 12 0 – 24
Little Falls 6 7 0 8 – 21
ROC: Virchow 3 run (conv. failed), 11:31.
LF: Jalen Wuchko 39 run (conv. failed), 2:13.
LF: Bryce Zawatzke 12 pass from Austin Fenske (Thomas Bell kick), 8:31.
ROC: Budde 64 pass from Virchow (conv. failed), 7:43.
ROC: Schleppenbach 9 run (conv. failed), 10:02.
ROC: Schwagel 20 run (conv. failed), 1:42.
LF: Zawatzke 6 pass from Fenske (Zawatzke pass from Fenske), 5:43.
Little Falls—Rushing: Jalen Wuchko: 26-167; Brighton Goodrich: 14-46; Trysten Ross: 3-28; Thomas Miller: 1-21. Passing: Austin Fenske: 9-20, 112. Receiving: Kyle Kabanuk: 2-42; Ross: 3-36; Bryce Zawatzke: 3-28; Michael Fregin: 1-6.
Follow area sports on Twitter at MCRecordSports