HUDSON — With its back to the ropes, a young Menomonie team turned to two of its elder statesmen to get the job done when it mattered most.
On fourth-and-goal with the game on the line against Hudson, Menomonie senior quarterback Jake Ebert fired a pass to fellow senior Sam Zbornik from the eight-yard line. The 6-foot-5 receiver leaped, and managed to snag the ball despite being snared in the arms of two Raider defenders to secure the game-winning touchdown with 2:48 left in the game.
The result? The Mustangs broke the hunt for the Big Rivers title wide open with a come-from-behind 20-17 win over the conference-leading Raiders on Friday night.
“Our kids never quit,” Menomonie coach Joe LaBuda said. “Our back was against the wall the whole time. We never led in the game until our last offensive play. The kids just didn’t quit.”
Hudson had held a 17-7 lead entering the fourth quarter, thanks to some big plays from quarterback Keyser Helterbrand. The senior passed for 275 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 56 more yards.
The first touchdown strike from Helterbrand came to Ben Karls — who had 151 receiving yards — late in the second quarter to put the Raiders up 10-0.
Menomonie responded going into the half though, as Ebert connected with Zbornik for a three-yard touchdown pass with 29 seconds left before the break to pull within three.
Hudson re-established the 10-point cushion midway through the third quarter, when Helterbrand found a compeletly-unguarded Karls for a 53-yard score.
Entering the fourth, the Menomonie defense stopped a Hudson drive at the Mustangs’ 17-yard line, and the Raiders missed a field goal try.
“We turned them back twice inside the 30,” LaBuda said. “Our kids had no quit.”
On the ensuing drive, Ebert evaded a sack with his legs and tossed the ball to Dylan Boecker, who juked past a Hudson defender and found paydirt with a 63-yard dash to the end zone.
After the Menomonie defense eventually stopped Hudson on a grueling 12-play drive thanks to a fourth-down sack by Will Ockler, Ebert and Zbornik connected again for the winning score.
“Zbornik is a tough matchup for people at 6-5, so we went after that,” LaBuda said.
Hudson went three-and-out on its final drive, and Menomonie ran out the clock to throw its hat back in the Big Rivers title race.
“We just need to finish,” Hudson coach Adam Kowles said. “Quit getting penalties and quit giving up the big play. It’s pretty simple.”
Menomonie had to turn to its passing game more than usual to pull off the win. The Mustangs ran at a stout Hudson defense and were limited to 89 rushing yards.
“We found it hard to run against Hudson. Hudson’s defense was really good,” LaBuda said.
Turns out, Ebert was up to the challenge of making plays. He threw for 340 yards. Boecker had a hugely productive night at wideout, tallying over 150 receiving yards.
“They had us on our heels the whole game,” Kowles said.
There are no more undefeated teams in the Big Rivers following Menomonie’s win. Several one-loss teams still have a shot at the title: Menomonie, Hudson, Rice Lake and River Falls.