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Thunder season ends with thriller against No. 10 team in the country

FDLTCC Thunder's Chaise Jokinen runs through a hole during the MCAC semifinal football game against Rochester on Saturday at Public Schools Stadium in Duluth. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal

The score didn't turn out in Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College's favor last weekend, but the MCAC state semifinal contest between the Thunder and Rochester Community College was an example of how far the program has come in just a few short years.

The Thunder fell 31-24 to their playoff-seasoned visitors but Thunder Coach Keith Turner was very proud of his young team.

"When you look, I'd give us a B grade," he said. "The kids played really hard no matter the score, playing with passion and getting after it. There was never any quit."

The Thunder even got on the board first. With the game scoreless in the second quarter, turnover machine Rial Wells sacked the Rochester quarterback, forced a fumble, picked it up himself and raced 12 yards for the game's first score.

"It was just a huge play," Turner said. "It showed we were there to play. It was probably the hardest-hitting game I have ever coached."

However, Rochester scored the next two touchdowns, but the Thunder got the ball back when Andrew Youngren recovered a Rochester fumble at the 8-yard line.

Then, disaster struck as a mixup on a handoff exchange between Cody Anderson and Jordan Myles resulted in a fumble that was run back for a Rochester touchdown and a 21-7 deficit.

But Anderson brought the Thunder back into the game, hitting Andre Sims on a 45-yard scoring strike in the third quarter to make it 21-14 on the team's next drive.

Rochester scored the next 10 points but Anderson hit Sims again to make it 31-24 in the fourth quarter, before leaving the game with a concussion Turner wasn't happy about.

Rochester also knocked out Ridgewater's starting quarterback on the first series of their first-round playoff game.

"I won't say [Rochester] played dirty," Turner said, "but there were blows to the head and they got called for two roughing-the-passer calls. You're either teaching that or you can't get your kids to stop doing that, which isn't good either way."

That brought backup quarterback Chaise Jokinen into the game and after throwing an interception, Jokinen drove the Thunder downfield for an Anthony Mackala field goal that made it 31-24 with five minutes to play.

A Mackala onside kick was recovered by Rochester, though, and with no timeouts remaining the Thunder were helpless to stop the clock.

"Chaise came in and did a good job," Turner said. "The interception was my fault because he was uncomfortable and I put him in a situation where he had to throw it with the play call I made. But he did play well."

Unfortunately, the Thunder couldn't get the tying score and Rochester now will play Central Lakes for the state championship on Saturday at Husky Stadium in St. Cloud.

"This season was a quantum leap for the program," Turner said. "If you look at the national rankings you see Rochester at number 10 in the country and Central Lakes at number eight and we had number ten on the ropes."

"Teams aren't going to take us lightly anymore," Turner added. "People won't say 'Hey, Fond du Lac is coming so we get an easy win.'"

When the team turned in its equipment on Monday, Turner said players were already in the weight room preparing for next season.

"They've already been saying it to me," he said. "We had a dozen kids lifting and doing footwork drills. They're talking about coming back, keeping their grades up, and they want to stay together, play together and win a championship."

"We've taken that step where the kids understand what they are going to have to do to win a championship," Turner added. "The kids grew and I couldn't be any prouder of that."