Laurel reigns in rainy Homecoming game

By: 
CHRIS MCCONNELL
Outlook staff writer

The heavy rain and cool weather was most welcome throughout Montana on Friday, but the conditions amplified mistakes and made the Locomotive’s 20-14 Homecoming win over Park County more challenging than expected.
Park’s and Laurel’s first possessions resulted in a three-and-out punts under dark skies, constant drizzle and 45-degree wind chill temperatures.
On the Locos second possession, Gage Hull connected with Logan Kennedy on a second-and-11 from the Laurel 21, resulting in a 29-yard gain and setting up a first-and-10 on the 50. On second-and-9 Hull connected with Deklan Harper on a 50-yard touchdown pass. Harper caught the ball at the 20 and cut inside, leaving a Ranger defender sliding out of bounds as he crossed the goal line untouched. Kennedy connected on the extra point and Laurel took a 7-0 lead with 3:25 left in the first quarter.
The Rangers weren’t able to move the ball and punted to the Locos. After an offsides penalty gave them a first down on the Ranger 44, Ethan Renner slipped through multiple defenders to pick up 36 yards and a first-and-goal from the 8. Renner took the handoff on the ensuing play and easily scored on the 8-yard run. A Kennedy kick gave the Locos the 14-0 lead with 0:39 in the first.
Park County had a second-and-10 from the 20 to start the second quarter when John Waddell connected on an 80-yard touchdown bomb. The 2-point conversion was good, bringing the Rangers within six, 14-8.
Laurel started their next drive on their own 37. On third-and-7 Renner picked up 8 yards on a slippery run to get the first down. On fourth-and-short, the offensive line created the space for Hull to sneak the ball into Ranger territory, moving the chains.
Sophomore running back Cameron Clark had a 19-yard run to bring up a first at the 22. After Laurel fumbled and recovered the hand-off on first down for no loss, Harper caught his second TD of the half on a 22-yard pass from running back Noah Gunther.
Coach Mike Ludwig said it was a successful trick play.
“Noah isn’t a backup quarterback and we have a few plays involving him, including a double pass.”
The extra point was blocked and Laurel had a 20-8 lead with 7:00 left in the half.
The teams traded punts on their next two possessions and Park started their final possession of the half on their own 31.
The Ranger threw an incomplete sideline pass on third-and-18, but defensive back Gaje Leischner was called for pass interference. The 15-yard penalty gave the Rangers a third-and-3, which they converted on a short run.
With 2:33 left, and the rain coming down sideways, Laurel was called for roughing the passer, giving the Rangers another first down. On second-and-10 Ely Craft was called for a horse collar, moving the ball to the 8 and a second-and-goal. Waddle dropped back on third-and-goal from the 11 and scrambled in the back field before connecting with a wide-open Warren Hanson for the 11-yard TD pass. After Harper broke up the 2-point conversion, the Locos ran the clock out, taking the 20-14 lead into the half.
That was the kind of defensive series that drives coaches crazy, and Ludwig is no exception.
He called the series unacceptable. “We can’t have three 15-yard penalties in one drive.”
Conditions remained variable through the halftime break and fireworks show, and Homecoming royalty and parents put on their best faces as they lined up on the field in the driving rain.
Laurel kept the ball on the ground and burned the clock for their first possession of the second half. On a fourth-and-6 with 9:47 left in the third, Kennedy ran to the left for a rugby-style punt, but kept the ball and sprinted for an easy first down.
“We practice the rugby kick to apply pressure, and we give Logan the green light to run it if he sees an opening,” Ludwig said.
The Rangers sacked Hull on the next play for an 8-yard loss and a Hull to Kennedy pass brought up fourth-and-short, which they converted with a 7-yard run. With 5:36 left the Loco drive ended with a fumble on third-and-4.
Park County punted on their next possession and on first-and-10 from Laurel’s 17, Renner picked up 22-yards for a first down, but fumbled on the next play to give the Rangers the ball back. Renner sacked Waddell on the next play and the Rangers eventually punted on fourth-and-16.
Laurel punted on their next series and Harper came off the field limping.
The rain started to let up as Livingston punted to start the fourth quarter and Laurel started working the clock, running for two first downs. A false start brought up fourth-and-9 and forced a punt with 8:50 left in the game.
Park started their drive on the 20 and picked up several first downs on passes. Clark was injured on a long pass play that got the Rangers to the Laurel 4-yard line, but the play was called back after offsetting penalties. After Clark was carried off the field with a hamstring injury, Kennedy made a good stop bringing up fourth-and-5 with 2:43 left. Livingston went for it and Leischner put a monster hit on a Ranger receiver to break up the pass and give the ball back to Laurel.
The rain stopped and even the wind seemed to hold its breath as Laurel tried to hang on to the ball, and a six point lead, for the final two minutes.
They started on their own 27 and an 11-yard completion to Harper got a first down with 2:11 left. After two short gains, the play of the game came on a third-and-7 with just over a minute left.
With two running backs injured, Ludwig said Offensive Coordinator “Matt Kimmet made a good call to pass on third down because Cam and Ethan were out.”
Hull made the completion to Gunther for 17 yards with a minute left.
The Locos took a knee and got the win under difficult conditions.
Head Coach Mike Ludwig was happy for the win but wasn’t entirely optimistic about the Locos performance; two turnovers, 14 penalties for 110 yards and two key players injured. He felt the Loco’s play matched the weather: sloppy.
“We didn’t play very well. We had two fumbles, again, and we can’t have over 100 yards in penalties every game.”
Because Clark’s hamstring and Renner’s hip injury make them questionable for Friday, Ludwig said he had to bring some freshman up this week.
Tomorrow the Locos travel to Belgrade to face a 2-2 Panther team.
Ludwig said they’re a good team that plays hard and said weather may be a factor in the game.
“It looks like it might rain and our JV team plays first, so the field may be chewed up.”
The mantra for practice this week is “more discipline, play smarter and take care of the football,” Ludwig said.

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