It takes an entire team to build something that has an opportunity, for the third year in a row, to play for a Section Championship.
And sometimes, some of the puzzle pieces can come from the oddest places.
Such is the case for No. 21 Tyler Hayes, tailback for the Knights who, in his senior year, is taking his first shot at football.
“He was in a math class with me last season,” said quarterback Jackson Greenwaldt of Hayes. “I know him as a hockey guy, but he kind of looked at me during the regular season and said, ‘football looks like you guys are having fun.’ I really encouraged him to give it a shot this summer and he did the work and came out this fall and made the team.”
He’s done more than that. Hayes has been, for all purposes, the epitome of clutch. With 182 rushing yards, he’s well behind teammate Jordan Joseph, who leads the team with a little more than 1,000 yards on the year. But he’s actually ahead of Joseph in terms of touchdowns, actually tied with Greenwaldt, with seven on the ground.
On defense, he’s only played in three games. But he recovered a crucial fumble versus Big Lake that turned that game on its ear, allowing the Knights to change a 7-3 game into an eventual blowout.
“Tyler’s just come out and done a great job of putting in the work, studying hard off the field and really doing anything we’ve asked him to do. He’s what you want in a player. You know he’s a talented athlete because he’s captain of the hockey team and he’s going to be a big part of their success this winter. But give him credit for trying something new and really, doing it well,” said head coach Jared Essler.
On special teams, Hayes isn’t afraid to handle the return, and led the Knights with 190 yards in the regular season. Last Saturday afternoon, he was a tackler away from springing one for big yardage against Monticello.
The pinnacle of Hayes’ newfound football career came Wednesday, Oct. 15 when the Knights had everything on the line against Rogers.
With under 2 minutes left, the offense marched its way down the field, thanks in part to a huge catch by Tyler Berg on a key fourth down and some nifty passing and scrambling by Greenwaldt.
But it was Hayes who collected the screen pass that will go down in STMA lore. Hayes picked up the blockers immediately after turning upfield, and picked his way for a 19-yard score. It was his first, and only, catch of the regular season.
“It’s one of those cases where you take advantage of the opportunity,” Essler said. “He can make a big play.”
“I think you have to give a lot of credit to our coaches, especially Coach Essler and Coach (Keith) Cornell, for the time they’ve put in and the trust they’ve put in someone like that. They’ve done a great job coaching him up and he’s become a big part of our offense and what we do. It’s pretty awesome.”
Knights Battle Elk River for Section 6 Crown Tonight
At 7 p.m. tonight, two of the top teams in Class 5A will battle in Albertville when STMA hosts Elk River for the section championship.
Elk River will bring its famous “Wing-T” offense, which uses misdirection and confusion to keep the ball on the ground with the hopes of springing big plays – something the Elks did three times in their 42-34 win over Rogers last week in the semifinals.
Essler said assignments and alleys will be the key as the defense needs to find their gap, stay low and make plays to get the Elk River offense off the field.
“You know what they’re going to do. They don’t hide it. It’s just a matter of finding a way to stop it,” he said.
As for the Knights, the key may be the passing attack. Elk River’s size up front will be tough for backs like Jordan Joseph, Luke Eicher and Hayes to crack early on. But a few passes down field may force the Elks to soften that front, leaving gaps for Joseph later in the contest.
That formula worked well against Monticello, who had a sizable front line as well.
“We’re confident that our offense can move the ball on anybody if we play the way we’re able to,” Greenwaldt said. “It’s just a matter of taking care of the ball and not making any big mistakes. All of the games and teams are going to be tougher now. We know we can play better than we have, and that’s going to be a big part of what keeps us playing.”
IF YOU GO:
What: Elk River vs. STMA, Section 6-5A Championship
Where: STMA Middle School West, Albertville
When: 7 p.m. tonight (Friday)
Cost: Activity passes are not taken for tonight’s playoff game. Tickets are available at the gate. Cost is $9 for adults, $6 for students and seniors