MENDOTA — Following Friday’s Big Northern Conference West Division game in Mendota, Winnebago football coach Mark Helm had a message to deliver.
Following Mendota’s heartbreaking 34-33 defeat to the Indians, Helm bypassed his team and stood in the middle of the MHS post-game huddle.
“You guys,” he said, “made us fight for our lives.”
While Mendota may have lost the battle, it proved something to the rest of the conference Friday.
The Trojans are for real.
“If there’s anything to take out of the loss, it’s the fact that we can compete in the conference and that (the kids) hate losing,” second-year MHS coach Brock Sondgeroth said. “I saw more emotion tonight from losing than I’ve seen in the last year. I think things are going back in the right way, the way they are supposed to.”
In the BNC West opener, the Trojans (2-1, 0-1) rallied from a 14-point third-quarter deficit with 20 straight points to take a 33-27 lead.
However, the Indians (3-0, 1-0) — ranked No. 9 in Class 3A — countered with the go-ahead touchdown and held MHS on fourth-and-inches with a little more than a minute to go to preserve the win.
“I’ve (addressed teams following the game) a couple of times before. A great coach at Stillman Valley did that to me when I took over this program when we were kind of down,” Helm said. “It meant a lot, and I felt (the Mendota) kids played their hearts out and deserved to get that.
“They are a very good team, and I knew they were just looking at the tape,” Helm added. “But I’ll be honest, I’m more impressed after seeing them in person than I was when I saw them on tape. They were extremely competitive and tough tonight.”
In the end, the Trojans just couldn’t make enough plays.
After MHS scored on its opening drive, Winnebago scored 21 straight points to take a 21-7 lead at halftime.
After both sides traded a pair of scores, the Trojans found themselves facing a 27-13 deficit with 8:23 left in the third quarter.
That’s when MHS came alive.
Junior James Carroll sparked the Mendota offense when the running back/backup quarterback threw a 75-yard halfback touchdown pass to receiver Ryan Reeder to pull MHS to 27-20 with 5:53 left in the third quarter.
On the next series, Winnebago quarterback Ryan Swigart fumbled away possession on a scramble to help set up a seven-play, 59-yard scoring drive.
The Trojans got to the 15-yard line to end the third quarter, and junior running back Wyatt Martinson scored on the first play of the fourth quarter to tie the game at 27-27 with 11:54 remaining.
On the Indians’ next possession, Swigart threw a floater that was intercepted by Connor Doughty at midfield and returned to the 29-yard line.
Three plays later, MHS senior fullback Jimmy Bruno scored on a 16-yard run — his second rushing score of the game — to give MHS the lead with 7:09 left.
However, Reeder’s PAT kick was blocked to give the Trojans a 33-27 lead.
The Indians flexed their muscles on the ensuing drive as they marched 65 yards in eight plays before Nolan Peterson tied the game on an 11-yard touchdown run.
Swigart kicked the PAT to give Winnebago a 34-33 lead with 3:56 left.
Starting at their 43-yard line, the Trojans advanced the ball to Winnebago’s 40-yard line, where MHS faced fourth-and-inches.
However, Martinson was stopped for a 2-yard loss, and Winnebago ran out the clock for the win.
The Trojans failed to capitalize on opportunities to win.
Reeder missed a 29-yard field goal at the start of the second quarter, MHS botched the snap of a PAT kick in the third quarter and had a PAT kick blocked in the fourth quarter.
Bruno ran for 112 yards and two touchdowns, while Martinson ran for a game-high 199 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries despite not practicing during the week.
The junior speedster injured his left ankle but never told the coaches in last Friday’s win against Rockford Christian, Sondgeroth said, and showed up at Saturday’s practice with a swollen ankle. X-rays on Saturday were negative, but Martinson was on crutches Monday and Tuesday and was able to gingerly cut on his injured ankle on Wednesday.
He improved and was still cautious on Thursday, Sondgeroth said, but on Friday morning he declared himself ready to play with the approval of Sondgeroth and the MHS medical staff.
Note: The Mendota sophomore team prevailed 25-6.
Jared Bell can be reached at 220-6938, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsJared.