WILLOW RIVER — It’s not often the Moose Lake-Willow River football team trails come the postseason, yet such was the scene last weekend when upset-minded Royalton brought an 8-0 lead into halftime at a stunned Frank Magdziarz Field.

A Rebels’ rally was the response.

The top-seeded hosts finally broke through, and in a big way, as playoff-poised ML-WR scored 20 unanswered points on their way to a 20-8 win over the fifth-seeded Royals during the Section 7AA semifinal Saturday, Oct. 26, in Willow River.

Blake Juhl jolted for a 65-yard touchdown and Mason Olson heaved scoring passes to Eli Werner and Carter Johnson all in the final 24 minutes as the Rebels (7-2) rolled their way into another 7AA championship game. They face Mesabi East (4-6) on Thursday, Oct. 31, at 7:15 p.m. in Esko.

ML-WR will be seeking their 13th state tournament appearance in the last 14 years.

Such unprecedented success breeds confidence among the players wearing red, white and blue, so when asked if he and his Rebel teammates were nervous trailing the Royals 8-0 last weekend, Olson didn’t hesitate.

Moose Lake-Willow River's Keagan Noyes makes a tackle on Royalton's Brady Conrad during the Rebels 20-8 win in the Section 7AA semifinal game Saturday, Oct. 26. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal
Moose Lake-Willow River's Keagan Noyes makes a tackle on Royalton's Brady Conrad during the Rebels 20-8 win in the Section 7AA semifinal game Saturday, Oct. 26. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal

“We were confident,” said the 5-foot-11, 175-pound junior quarterback among a throng of well-wishing fans in the end zone afterward. “The first half they played better than we did, but in the second, we just wanted it more.”

“We’ve got to play fast and physical,” added Johnson, a 6-1, 180-pound receiver. “If we do that, we can do anything.”

Conversely, ML-WR couldn’t do much of anything in the opening half last weekend, as Royalton (4-6) scored the contest’s only points on Brady Conrad’s 5-yard plunge late in the second quarter. It could have been even worse, but a goal line stand by the Rebels on the Royals’ opening drive and two more stops inside their red zone kept ML-WR within striking distance.

And strike they did, when the junior workhorse in Juhl sprinted down the left sideline with 5:31 left in the third quarter to make things 8-6 and send the bursting bleachers into a Rebel roar.

“That gave us a lot of momentum,” Johnson said.

Case in point, when ML-WR marched their way down the field later in the fourth quarter, only take their first lead on Werner’s toe-dragging snare from Olson on a 12-yard, fourth-down pass that was initially deflected but still reeled in by the acrobatic senior to make it 12-8 with 8:19 to play.

Moose Lake-Willow River's Eli Werner gets past Royalton's Drew Yourczek during the Section 7AA semifinal Saturday, Oct. 26. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal
Moose Lake-Willow River's Eli Werner gets past Royalton's Drew Yourczek during the Section 7AA semifinal Saturday, Oct. 26. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal

On the ensuing drive, a fourth-down fumble by the Royals gave the ball back to ML-WR, where just two plays later, Olson found Johnson on a 35-yard strike with 5:12 to go.

“They made big plays. That’s exactly what we didn’t want to have happen,” Royalton coach Jamie Morford said. “Moose Lake has an excellent tradition here.”

“We’ve got good athletes. They don’t fold under pressure; they make plays; they come through,” ML-WR coach Dave Louzek said. “As a program, we expect to be successful and expect to be playing for a section championship.”

The Rebels have eliminated the Royals in each of the last three seasons, including 2017 and 2018 in the 7AA final.

ML-WR will again be in that final on Halloween — their 16th title game appearance in 21 seasons under Louzek — yet, don’t expect any tricks against the Cinderella Giants. Mesabi East, the section’s bottom seed, has already upset favored International Falls and Crosby-Ironton.

“Obviously, they’re playing great football,” said Louzek of Mesabi East. “We’re not looking at them as the sixth seed.”

Section 7AA Semifinals

ML-WR 0-0-6-14—20

Royalton 0-8-0-0—8

R — Brady Conrad 5 run (Dylan Skwira run)

ML-WR — Blake Juhl 65 run (conversion failed)

ML-WR — Eli Werner 12 pass from Mason Olson (conversion failed)

ML-WR — Carter Johnson 35 pass from Olson (Juhl run)

Moose Lake-Willow River's Logan Privette sacks Royalton quarterback Gavin Sowada during the Rebels' 20-8 win in the Section 7AA semifinal Saturday, Oct. 26. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal
Moose Lake-Willow River's Logan Privette sacks Royalton quarterback Gavin Sowada during the Rebels' 20-8 win in the Section 7AA semifinal Saturday, Oct. 26. Dave Harwig/Pine Journal