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Hilltoppers scramble to victory over Valley

MENOMONIE – A champion shows his true character and grit in the face of adversity.

That is just what the entire 2013 Glenwood City football team showed in its regular season finale at the Don and Nona Williams Stadium on the UW-Stout campus last Friday evening, October 18.

After surrendering a one-point lead to the Spring Valley Cardinals, who have been using the stadium as their home venue this season, on a gut-wrenching, lung-deflating 66-yard touchdown pass with just under two minutes to play, the Hilltoppers led by senior quarterback Nick Mrdutt engineered one final scoring drive and “popped” a two-point conversion to earn a thrilling 30-29 decision over a strong Cardinals’ squad.

Glenwood City improved to 8-1 on the year and finished second in the Dunn-St. Croix with a 5-1 record.

“I am so pleased with the character of our kids when they got down (at the end of the game),” said Glenwood City head coach Shane Strong. “They only had a minute and a half left and they drove down the field. Nick Mrdutt showed great leadership on the scrambles and he threw the ball extremely well.”

“I really didn’t think that the game was over at any time in my mind because of the kids we have,” Strong added. “I can’t always say that but with this group of kids they will never give up, they will never stop fighting.”

These Hilltoppers never did.

Even when they fell behind 14-0 early in the second quarter, they simply regrouped and came charging back behind the leadership and arm of senior signal caller Nick Mrdutt, who threw a pair of second-quarter touchdown passes, to take a 16-14 halftime lead. He also had another long touchdown throw in the third quarter.

It was somewhat miraculous that Nick Mrdutt was even in Friday’s lineup, let alone playing. Just five days earlier he had fallen several feet down a silo chute after being overcome by gas and had to be taken by ambulance to an area hospital for treatment.

But on Friday night Mrdutt was on the field as usual in search of another miracle and a bit of redemption.

In the final two minutes of the game, Mrdutt had stumbled and fell while in pass coverage which had allowed Spring Valley’s Remington Schneider an uncontested opportunity to snare Zach Newton’s fourth-down heave and turn it into a 66-yard touchdown. The Cardinals added the two-point conversion to take the lead, 29-22.

The Hilltoppers had just 1:46 left when they started at their own 40 yard line. The passing game had paid dividends all game and it would again this drive. But instead, it served to open the field and allowed Mrdutt to use his wits and legs to quickly move Glenwood City down field.

“He improvises, he is an athlete,” Strong said of his quarterback. “They (Spring Valley) played maximum coverage and dropped out of there and Nick was able to scramble out and use his athleticism which was huge.”

On first down, Mrdutt reeled off 15 yards to the Spring Valley 45. On the ensuing play, Mrdutt’s pass fell incomplete but the Cardinals were flagged for pass interference giving the Toppers another 15 yards and fresh set of downs.

Mrdutt dropped back to pass for a third straight time and again found the field in front of him void of Cardinal defenders, so he took off and ran the ball 21 yards to the Valley nine before he was ushered out of bounds.

Isaac Tuttle took the first-down hand off for six yards to the three. Then on second and goal, Jeff Kopacz hit the century mark when he punctuated the drive with a three-yard scoring run with 39 ticks left on the clock.

The Toppers still trailed 29-28. Coach Strong opted to go for the two-point conversion and the win instead of the tie. Having just implemented a new goal line scheme at the previous night’s practice, Strong decided to use his “popcorn” play where the lineman stands up out of their stance and then quickly shift to an unbalanced formation before resetting.

“We put that play in on Thursday, we call it “Popcorn”,  Strong said. “We just shifted to an unbalanced front and then went off tackle and Tuttle punched it in.”

Tuttle’s run for two ignited a celebration on the field and in the stands as Glenwood City took a 30-29 lead.

Strong said he never considered playing for the tie.

“No doubt in my mind, we were going for the win,” said Strong. “I did not want to go into overtime. I felt that if we can’t get three yards, we don’t deserve to win the football game.”

Two plays following the kickoff, Mrdutt came up with yet another big play when he intercepted Zach Newton’s pass to secure the win.

“Great fight and grit by this entire team to come back and win this football game,” Strong stated. “I am so proud of them.”

“We haven’t been down in many games this entire season other than the Mondovi game and to Spring Valley’s credit, they came to play football tonight,” stated Strong.

The Cardinals seemed intent on shutting down the vaunted Toppers’ ground game and especially running back Isaac Tuttle.

Spring Valley’s defensive line did an excellent job against the run and particularly Isaac Tuttle, who was held to his lowest output of the season, 57 yards on 17 attempts. Kopacz elevated his play rushing for 100 yards on 17 carries.

But it was the Toppers’ passing game that made the difference. Mrdutt threw touchdowns strikes to Kopacz, Tuttle and Jacob Hierlmeier and finished with 168 yards on a five for 12 performance. That success required Spring Valley to respect the Toppers’ aerial attack and opened the way for Mrdutt’s effective scrambles on the final drive.

“That passing attack was huge for us tonight,” Coach Strong told his charges in the post game huddle. “How many touchdown passes did we have tonight? Three touchdown passes. You wonder why we are working on these little things, its because when we get into these situation we can use them.”

And the Toppers needed to use them.

Spring Valley scored touchdowns on two of its first three offensive possessions to build a 14-0 advantage over the usually quick-starting Hilltoppers.

Cardinals’ quarterback Zach Newton broke free on the game’s fourth play from scrimmage and scored on a 60-yard run. Bryan Bednarek’s kick after touchdown gave the Valley a 7-0 lead.

Glenwood City would start on its own 40 following the kickoff and moved inside Spring Valley’s 30 on runs of 13, nine, and two yards by Jeff Kopacz coupled with runs for eight, and a pair of one yarders from Tuttle.

But incompletions on third and fourth downs gave possession of the ball to Spring Valley.

Spring Valley would eventually punt the ball but Glenwood City could not gain a first down on the ensuing series and punted after three running plays.

The Cardinals took over following at its own 49. Spring Valley’s three-head rushing attack of Newton, Jed Schlegel, and Tyler O’Keefe had the Toppers reeling as they moved the ball down to the 20. On the second play of the second quarter, Zach Newton went to the air and found Jed Schlegel open on third and six. Schlegel did the rest as he weaved his way to the end zone to give the Cards a 13-0  lead. Bednarek’s kick made it 14-0 with 11:14 remaining in the half.

A sudden sense of urgency then took hold of the Toppers.

Glenwood City opened with four solid runs to begin its next offensive series. The success brought the Cards to the line and allowed Jeff Kopacz to slip well behind the defense and haul in a nice 56-yard touchdown pass from Nick Mrdutt to finally break the goose egg on the scoreboard at 9:18. Tuttle tacked on the two-point run and the Toppers trailed 14-8.

The teams would exchange turnovers on the next two series. Donovan Fornal, laying on his back, picked a Tyler O’Keefe fumble out of mid-air. Remington Schneider would get the ball back for the Cardinals when he intercepted a fourth-down Mrdutt pass attempt.

Spring Valley eventually had to punt and pinned the Toppers at the 13.

But a big pass play to Donovan Fornal for 23 yards on second down took the Toppers to their 43.

Kopacz had runs of seven, eight, and one yards along with a 13-yard pass reception that moved the Toppers to the SV 27. Two plays later, Kopacz ran for 14 yards and a first down at the 12. On the next play, Jacob Hierlmeier caught a Mrdutt toss for the 12-yard touchdown to tie the game with 1:08 left in the first half. Nick Mrdutt ran in the two-point conversion to give the Toppers the halftime lead, their first of the contest.

Glenwood City took the second-half kickoff and looked to build on its momentum and lead but Isaac Tuttle fumbled the ball on the very first play. Instead, Spring Valley recovered the ball at the Toppers’ 35 and turned it into points. Seven plays later on a third and 11, Newton tossed a 17-yard completion down the middle of the field to James Hannack who held on despite a crushing hit from a Topper defender  for the touchdown as the Cardinals regained the lead. Bednarek’s kick made the score 21-16 in the Cards favor at 8:28.

Glenwood City would take the ball at its 25 and gained a first down but quickly was faced with a fourth and four. A Spring Valley offsides refreshed Glenwood City’s downs and then three plays later, on a third and 23, Mrdutt found a wide open Isaac Tuttle who hauled in the throw and outran the defense to complete the 66-yard pitch and catch to put the Toppers back in front 22-21 at 4:00. Kopacz was stopped short on the conversion run.

The score would remain that way until the final two minutes of play when the dramatics and points erupted. The teams combined for 16 points in a span of one minute and 11 seconds, culminating in Mrdutt’s scrambles, Kopacz’ touchdown, and Tuttle’s kerneled two-pointer that gave the Hilltoppers a fantastic 30-29 win.

The Toppers finished with 372 yards compared to 316 for the Cardinals. GC had 204 yards on the ground led by Kopacz’s 100 yards and 168 through the air. Spring Valley’s Tyler O’Keefe led all runners with 108 yards on 22 carries for over half of the Cards 212 rushing yards.

“We were down a couple of times,” said Strong. “And the kids rallied back as a team, fought and won the game.”

“I loved the fight, loved the fight in battling back,” coach told his players. “Congratulations on an 8-1 season, that is an awesome year.”

And it’s not done. Glenwood City, the defending D7 state championships and number four ranked team, will open the playoffs at home this Friday night when they host the Clayton Bears in a Division 7, level one contest. The Toppers knocked off Clayton, then top-ranked, in last year’s level two match-up.