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Fairmont earns back-to-back Section 3AAA football crowns

BLOCKED PUNT — Fairmont’s Landen Meyerdirk (21) stretches out to block a punt by Waseca’s Laird Keeton during first-quarter football action in the two teams’ Section 3AAA championship game Friday night in New Ulm. Meyerdirk went on to recover the block at the Bluejays’ 3-yard line. Fairmont posted a 35-26 victory over Waseca. (Photo by Greg Abel)

NEW ULM — A back-to-back Class AAA state football qualifier.

Fairmont earned its second consecutive Section 3 championship by producing a plus-4 factor in turnovers, while quarterback Brendan Schmidtke threw for 178 yards and four touchdowns to power the Cardinals by the Waseca Bluejays, 35-26, Friday night in New Ulm.

Fairmont (9-2) kicks off the state quarterfinals against St. Croix Lutheran (5-5) at noon, Saturday, Nov. 12, in Burnsville. The Crusaders edged Breck, 14-6, to garner the Section 4 crown.

The Cardinals, which defeated Waseca 27-6 for the 2021 sectional crown, avenged a 32-14 regular-season loss to the Bluejays during Week 4 of this campaign.

“Our defense continued to play lights out as it has done all season, while our offense continued to improve, especially on the ground,” said Mat Mahoney, who earned the sixth state appearance of his 16-year tenure at Fairmont’s helm. “We produced four fumble recoveries, but if I had to select a turning point, it was Landen Meyerdirk’s blocked punt and recovery in the first quarter. It really shifted the momentum in our direction.”

Waseca opened the sectional finale by assembling a 58-yard march downfield, with running back Kyle Ahlschlager dodging, cutting and sprinting his way to a 20-yard TD run. Ahlschlager added the two-point conversion run for an 8-0 Bluejays’ lead with 8:18 left in the opening segment.

Fairmont answered quickly on the strength and accuracy of Schmidtke’s arm. The senior quarterback needed only two passes to favorite target Levi Pooley to produce six points. Schmidtke hit Pooley in stride for a 58-yard scoring slant before Owen Burmeister kicked the PAT at 6:23.

Meyerdirk then struck like lightning by blocking Waseca’s punt and scooped up the loose football at the Bluejays’ 3-yard line. Running back Elijah Johnson pounded across the goal line before Burmeister’s kick made it 14-8 with 3:38 remaining in the first frame.

Waseca quarterback Oliver O’Brien countered by finding split end Damarius Russell on an 8-yard completion before feathering a 20-yard fade pass to Russell in the left corner of the end zone for the tying TD at the 10:19 mark of the second.

Schmidtke and Pooley then answered by dialing long distance through the airwaves. Schmidtke lofted a spiral to the fleet-footed Pooley, who ran under the football and sprinted 60 yards to the end zone for his second TD of the sectional final. Burmeister kicked the PAT to stake Fairmont to a 21-14 lead with 8:13 left before intermission.

Unfortunately for Waseca, O’Brien went to the sideline with an injury after Russell’s previous score and sat out a number of plays before returning under center on the next sequence.

Fairmont defender Parker Mathiason sacked a somewhat immobile O’Brien to force a Waseca punt and the Cardinals’ offense capitalized on the opportunity before intermission.

Schmidtke switched gears and fired a 16-yard strike to David Maakestad before converting a third-and-goal situation from the 8. With Fairmont showing a trips-set of receivers to the left, fullback Hank Artz rolled out of the backfield and corraled a Schmidtke toss for a TD. Burmeister’s kick made it 28-14 with just 1:19 showing in the second quarter.

Russell’s 30-yard kickoff return, combined with Ahlschlager twisting and turning for 30 of his game-leading 163 rushing yards, marched Waseca to the Fairmont 21 with time winding down and no Bluejay timeouts. Meyerdirk, however, garnered his second fumble recovery of the clash to deny Waseca any points and maintain the Cardinals’ 14-point lead by intermission.

Schmidtke, who completed 8 of 15 passes, produced the third quarter’s only TD by completing a 10-yard lateral to 6-foot-7, 283-pound offensive tackle Sawyer Tordsen in the left flat. Tordsen rumbled into the end zone for six points before Burmeister booted his fifth consecutive PAT for a 35-14 lead.

Waseca, however, displayed its mettle during the final 12 minutes by marching 71 yards in seven snaps to whittle Fairmont’s lead to 35-20. Ahlschlager reeled off a pivotal 25-yard run before weaving his way across the goal line from 4 yards out for his second TD of the night. Artz recorded a sack on O’Brien during the conversion play to keep the margin at 15 at the 8:54 mark.

Carter Ellis’ sack at the Bluejays’ 45 during a fourth-down conversion attempt by the Cardinals led to another Waseca TD. O’Brien connected on the key play of the possession — a 40-yard strike to Russell — to reach Fairmont’s 2. Christian Rodriguez covered the distance on the next handoff, but the 2-point conversion run failed to leave it a nine-point game at 35-26 with 4:02 to go.

Carson Ohnstad perfectly timed his run on the Bluejays’ ensuing on-side kick and caught the carom at the Cardinals’ 49 with 4 minutes to go.

Fairmont defensive lineman Tyson Thate, however, made a critical stop to later prevent Waseca’s conversion on a fourth-and-1 run.

Waseca lineman Ethan Stenzel then blocked Maakestad’s punt at the Fairmont 38 only to have Cardinal linebacker Aden Welcome produce the game-sealing fumble recovery with 2:05 remaining in regulation.

Pooley topped all receivers by garnering three passes for 133 yards and two TDs for Fairmont.

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