With precious little time remaining and an electric atmosphere buzzing throughout the stadium, Logan Graetz was as calm as could be.
There were 11 seconds left in the fourth quarter, and the River Falls senior quarterback was trying to cap an 80-yard drive with a touchdown to tie the game. Much was on the line, but you couldn’t tell from Graetz’s demeanor.
It was a showdown between Hudson and River Falls, a battle for the Little Brown Jug in a rivalry with over 100 years of history between the two schools. Hudson entered the Week 3 game in late August ranked in Division 1 and carrying serious hopes of winning a Big Rivers Conference championship. The Wildcats, on the other hand, were looking to prove they belonged, playing their first conference game since finishing third-from-last in the Big Rivers in 2017.
With the ball at Hudson’s 21-yard line and the clock displaying 11 ticks left, Graetz coolly took the snap out of the shotgun and waited for his receivers to bolt downfield.
The pocket didn’t remain open for long. Hudson defensive lineman Cade McDonald spun free of his blocker and came crashing in from the right side, flushing Graetz toward the left sideline. With his eyes locked downfield, something caught the quarterback’s attention.
Wildcats receiver Jared Creen was sneaking into the back-left corner of the end zone. So Graetz, on the move, launched a throw across his body deep into the night.
Right on the money. The pass found Creen’s hands at chest height, good for a touchdown that — despite how it looked — was anything but easy.
“That was just a normal thing for him, because he’s able to be so calm and relaxed, and because he has confidence in his abilities,” River Falls coach David Crail said. “In a quarterback, those are the things you want.”
River Falls’ ensuing extra point was blocked, giving Hudson the win, but the Wildcats had proved the point they wanted to make: They were for real, and they weren’t going to go away easily.
“It was a game that was really going to answer a lot of questions for us,” Crail said. “We learned a lot about our team that night.”
Among the things they learned: Perhaps their expectations could be set even higher.
“I had pretty high expectations (coming into the year),” Graetz said. “But as the season went along, I think they rose a lot.”
Graetz, a University of Minnesota recruit, was at the center of River Falls’ turnaround from two-win team to conference champion this year, returning from injury to jumpstart the rise of the program.
He finished the year sitting at the top or near the peak of most statistical categories in Wisconsin. He led the state with 32 touchdown passes, was fourth in completion rating (69.6 percent) among quarterbacks who threw at least 90 passes, fifth in QB rating and 18th in passing yards at 2,129.
Graetz also tops another list: He is the first River Falls player to be named Leader-Telegram All-Northwest football player of the year.
Graetz’s effect on the field — even when he isn’t playing — is palpable.
The Wildcats knew that all too well in 2017.
Graetz, who got his feet wet at the varsity level as a sophomore by playing in most of the team’s games, took snaps in River Falls’ first four games of his junior season. The numbers didn’t blow anybody away — he passed for just shy of 300 yards and one touchdown — but his high ceiling offered hope for the future.
That hope, at least when it came to 2017, was erased in a Week 4 game against Rice Lake, when he departed with a broken foot to end his season.
“I was frustrated,” Graetz said. “But I think I learned a lot from it. It kind of changed my perspective, made me appreciate the game a lot more.”
The Wildcats ended up losing by 35 in that game against Rice Lake, and went 2-3 in their final five games to finish the season at 2-7.
Graetz returned to competition later that year on the hockey rink, but experienced significant discomfort. That prompted another visit to the doctor, who revealed he had fractured the foot again.
A successful surgery ensued, and he returned to the ice in time for the playoffs.
The road to recovery wasn’t easy, but it paid dividends in the summer and fall.
“His greatest improvement over the course of the offseason was in his leadership and how he connected with the rest of the players on the team,” Crail said. “He didn’t let the injury impact his mindset.
“He worked harder, and started to appreciate the game more. That changed the way that he started to interact with and lead this team. That was his greatest area of growth, and that was the area we needed him to grow the most in. That impact showed over the course of the season.”
After the defeat against Hudson in Week 3 this fall, River Falls won its final six regular season games to clinch the Big Rivers title. That stretch included some eye-catching performances from Graetz.
There was the 347-yard, five-touchdown game against Rice Lake in Week 5. A week later, he passed for five more touchdowns — in the first half — in a win over Memorial.
“Logan was tough to prepare for because of his ability to run or pass,” Memorial coach Mike Sinz said. “He always had the threat of a big play. He is incredibly athletic and was an outstanding leader for their team.”
Graetz passed for a touchdown in all but one game this season — a Week 4 win over Menomonie, a game in which he used his legs to find the end zone instead. He threw for four or more touchdowns in four games and three or more touchdowns in seven.
Defenses only intercepted him four times all season.
“If the ball’s in my hands, I think I can make something happen with it,” Graetz said. “I trust that I’m not going to make mistakes.”
He showed an affinity for the deep ball over the course of the year. Of his 32 touchdown passes, 19 were from over 20-yard gains.
“From a physical standpoint, we knew what we were going to get,” Crail said. “Logan has some great abilities: ability to throw the ball, run the ball, his decision making. All of that’s really good.”
Graetz announced his intentions to play college football as a preferred-walk on at North Dakota State on July 24.
A couple of months later, Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck and his program came knocking.
Within a week of receiving an offer in early October, Graetz committed to be a preferred walk-on for the Golden Gophers.
“It’s only 40 minutes from home, and it was a good fit,” he said. “All I wanted was an opportunity. I feel like Minnesota is the right place for me.”
Garnering a bit of recruiting buzz at summer camps had generally been where the ball stopped rolling for Graetz in previous years. But this year, other schools started to take serious notice as the season got going.
Offers from the likes of Minnesota and Minnesota State-Mankato came in, adding to his offers from North Dakota State and Minnesota-Duluth. His recruitment was fair game, given the non-binding nature of his verbal commitment to the Bison.
All of a sudden, Graetz had some thinking to do.
“I focused a lot of my attention on those summer camps. I got a preferred walk-on offer from North Dakota State and thought ‘This is awesome, this is where I want to be,’” Graetz said. “I wasn’t quite expecting to have the season that I had, so when I did have this season and started getting other interest, it kind of opened my eyes a little bit.”
Now he plans to join the ranks of a Big Ten program, one that has shown plenty of willingness to put freshmen on the field this season.
“I’m really excited for him,” Crail said. “He’s going to continue to take steps physically. I know the work that he’s putting in now. But I’m also really excited for the person that he’s going to become, the leader he’s going to become.
“Minnesota, their program and what they’re about, provides a great opportunity for Logan’s continued growth in those areas. Quite honestly, I don’t know what the ceiling is for the kid. He’s a special player.”