ENDERLIN — During the final few drives of Fridays' 20-14 win over Oakes, Maple Valley/Enderlin football coach Brett Kapaun was okay with giving the visiting Tornadoes a few extra points, so long as the Falcons left with the win.
He told his team to simply "bend, don't break."
Though the Falcons were bent about as far as they could go, defending the end zone from their own two-yard line with 37 seconds left, they didn't break, forcing and recovering a fumble in the redzone to keep the Tornadoes from scoring what would have likely been the game-winning points.
It also clinched the first Region 1 championship in the history of the co-op, giving MVE a home playoff game Saturday afternoon.
"That was what we wanted this year," Kapaun said. "We said it the very first day of practice."
It comes a year after the Falcons lost in the state semifinals. The team was picked to place fifth in the region, but lost only one game en route to the regional title.
The fumble that finished the game came under circumstances that left Falcon fans on the edge of their seats.
MVE seemed to have the game wrapped up early in the fourth quarter when Jordan Haseleu had a 17-yard run to make it 20-7 with 11:50 left in the game.
But after the Falcons were forced to punt with 5:10 left, the Tornadoes made quick work of the next drive.
Quarterback Bryce Meehl, who struggled passing with Maple Valley's defense, started the drive by scrambling for four yards. He then hit three straight passes, first for 35 yards to Dalton Magill, then a 15-yarder to Trent Ptacek, followed by a 25-yard touchdown to Magill to make it 20-14 with 3:59 left.
"The fault on the touchdown is mine," Kapaun said. "We weren't ready for that."
The tornadoes then forced a three-and-out and returned the Maple Valley punt to their own 41.
After an incompletion to start the drive with just over two minutes, Meehl scrambled 23 yards to the Falcon 38, then had another run to the 25. A screen pass for no gain forced Oakes to use their final time out.
After a short run by Meehl, the Tornadoes got in the red zone on an 10-yard pass to Ptacek, and later had a pass to Magill to get first-and-goal at the 2.
As the clock ran and Oakes tried to get the ball in the endzone, the Falcons forced a fumble, which was picked up by defensive back Quinten Gibson.
"Gibson has really come on this season," Kapaun said, noting that Gibson also had key interceptions to put away games twice this year. "He's just played really, really well at the end of the year for us."
It was an ending that put away what was otherwise an up and down game for the Falcons.
Early, the Falcons struggled offensively with three first-half turnovers.
The first came on their first drive, when they fumbled at their own 37. Quarterback Jordan Haseleu also threw two interceptions — one in the first quarter, one in the second.
The EMV defense, however, made big plays to keep it close, putting pressure on Meehl and stopping the Oakes runningbacks. The big plays included a sack by Dylan Claus and an interception by Corby Richman.
The only play that caught the Falcons off guard was a double reverse that was run shortly after Haseleu's second interception. The initial fakes caught MVE looking right, only for Blake Hollingsworth to take it on the left side, 63 yards, which gave the Tornadoes a 7-0 lead going into halftime.
At halftime, Kapaun encouraged his team to make the most of the kickoff return.
"(I told them) 'Our heads are down but let's come up with a big return,'" he said.
They did just that, as Austin Dixson received the punt at about the 15-yard line, then followed his blocks all the way to the end zone 85 yards later, which gave the Falcons a 7-7 tie after a kick by Rodrigo Polmon.
The Falcons then controlled both the ball and the clock.
After forcing Oakes to punt, they got the ball back at their own 34 and ran it up the field. A 28-yard run by Thomas Lindgren got the ball to the 2, where Lindgren punched it in. Polmon's kick made it 14-7.
After a three-and-out, Maple Valley got the ball back and ran the ball up the field, which included a 39-yard scramble by Haseleu. A two-yard run by Lingren scored the final Falcon touchdown, though Oakes blocked the point-after kick.