In the end, the Magic’s first true test of the year came down to a simple cliché, one summed up by Coach Jason Telecky after the final seconds had ticked off a thrilling 20-13 victory over Cambridge-Isanti in an early battle of unbeaten teams.
“Big players make big plays.”
Friday night, the Magic had a couple more big players that made a couple more big plays. After trading big plays with mistakes all night, Monticello stole the game down the stretch when Matt Bonk marched the Magic downfield in the final minute, setting up a season-symbolizing catch and run from Hayden Laimer for the game-winning touchdown.
Laimer, like the Magic each of the past two weeks, seemed to be dead to rights early.
Instead, he responded with one broken tackle. Then – a juke and another broken tackle. Soon enough, with a burst of speed and a leap of excitement, Laimer had left three would-be tacklers on the ground and another opponent shaking their head as his touchdown with 30 seconds left moved Monticello to 3-0 for the first time since 1997.
“It was an out-of-body experience,” said Laimer, who had intentions of catching the ball and getting out of bounds. “I jumped [into the end zone] at the end. I just couldn’t control myself.”
If Monticello hadn’t been able to keep their emotions in check up until that point, this game easily could have been one that got away.
For the second straight week, the Magic found themselves having to battle back from a crushing start.
After taking the kickoff and marching right down the field against a vaunted Cambridge defense, Monticello, hurt by a penalty, stalled out inside the ten.
They decided to kick the field goal and take the points in what figured to be a low-scoring game. But things didn’t go quite as planned. A defender at the line of scrimmage knocked down Jakob Kounkel’s low kick. Then, as everyone seemed to freeze for a second, Cambridge’s Hunter Vavra picked up the ball and started moving. By the time the Magic gave chase, Vavra had too much of a head start. He went 80 yards for a touchdown, giving the away team an early lead and a huge swing of momentum.
Next possession, the Magic proved they are quite possibly immune to negative momentum. Just as they did last week in Buffalo, they refused to let things snowball against them.
Birk Olson immediately broke a 66-yard run that started wide right and ended on the left sideline at the 2-yard line. Two plays and just a minute and a half later, Will Bauman punched in the game-tying touchdown.
“The hardest thing is when it’s going the wrong way and the mistakes are piling up,” said Telecky. “It’s so easy to put your head down and walk away. These guys don’t. They are gamers. They don’t quit. They never give up.”
From that point on, each team struggled to grab any kind of momentum. For the rest of the first half, Cambridge came the closest to it. In the second quarter they continually found themselves on the right side of the field position battle and they took advantage of it by kicking a 41-yard field goal and a 38-yard field goal.
After the second field goal, Monticello had a minute and a half to march down the field and try to cut into the 13-7 deficit. They failed to score, but they did move the ball efficiently down to the 10-yard line, showing their biggest offensive signs of life since the second possession of the game.
After trying to pound the ball into Cambridge’s strong defensive front throughout the first half, Monticello came out with a different game plan in the second half.
First, they were aided by getting on the right side of the field position battle. After getting a defensive stop to start the third quarter, Laimer returned the Blue Jackets’ punt 27 yards into opposing territory at the 47.
The Magic opened the drive up by attacking the edge, as a toss to Will Bauman netted 15 yards. Next play saw Bonk drop back to pass and find Laimer across the middle. He was able to turn upfield and get the Magic to the eight-yard line.
Again, the Magic went back to the edge. Bauman took a toss, ran through contact, and waltzed into the end zone to quickly tie the game up at 13.
The Magic defense, energized by the tied game, started controlling the game. They forced a three and out. The Magic fumbled. The defense forced another three and out. The Magic fumbled a punt snap and kicked it nowhere. Laimer bailed them out when he played Cambridge’s fade perfectly, jumping in front of the bigger receiver to earn an interception on their first play of the drive.
Again, the Magic struggled to get offense going, and again they saw a punt get partially blocked, setting Cambridge up at midfield with half of the fourth quarter already gone.
This time, the Magic defense bent. The Blue Jackets moved the ball all the way down to the six-yard line, before being pushed back to the 11 by an illegal procedure penalty. But still, Cambridge was staring at a 28-yard field goal for a kicker who had already made four from well outside of 30 yards season.
But with less than four minutes left, the Magic made another big play.
Will Bauman, who had lost a fumble and grown noticeably frustrated when he couldn’t reel in a couple of catchable balls in the second half, stepped up.
Bauman got a great jump and as he got around the left edge he sprawled out in front of the kick, taking it off the chest, and appearing to give the Magic that ever elusive momentum.
“Honestly, I thought we could block it,” said Telecky.
“But you couldn’t have written a better script,” he added, referencing Bauman’s prior frustration. “Big players make big plays.”
With the clock winding down, and overtime appearing imminent, each team traded positions.
Then with less than two minutes left, the Magic got a spark from who else, Laimer. His second big punt return of the night set the Magic up at their own 44 with a minute and a half left on the clock.
Twice, Bonk hit Michael Witschen for big pass strike. The second came on a skinny post, as Bonk threw a bullet through a tight window that Witschen magically reeled in up against his back shoulder. The second play also got the Magic down to the 16-yard line. From there, Laimer did the rest.
“The kid’s all conference,” said Telecky. “He deserves it, and he showed everybody tonight why he is.”
There are few better than Laimer in the conference. But right now, there are none better than the Magic. At 3-0 they find themselves half a game in front of 2-0 Rogers.
“It means so much,” said Bonk, about moving to 3-0. “I don’t even have words to describe it right now. It’s amazing.”
Passing: Matt Bonk 12-23, 177 yards, 1 TD.
Receiving: Hayden Laimer: 4-70, 1 TD; Will Bauman: 5-62; Michael Witschen: 3-47; Jack Fair 1-18.
Rushing: Birk Olson: 7 carries-72 yards; Will Bauman 10-51, 2 TD; Jake Olson: 11-26; Sam Johnson: 4-0.
Defensive: Witschen: 10 tackles; B. Olson: 10 tackles; Paul Fair: 10 tackles; J. Fair: 9 tackles; Sam Johnson: 9 tackles