Longtime Two Harbors football coach Tom Nelson didn't mince words when asked Thursday night if the Agates' past failures crossed his mind when Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin threatened to score late in the Section 7AAA championship.
"Absolutely," he said.
But instead of calling themselves runner-up as they have three times in the past 10 years, the Agates can now call themselves champions, thanks to a 26-18 victory at Malosky Stadium.
Junior defensive back Karsen Holm sealed the victory - and Two Harbors' first trip to the state tournament since 1977 - with a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown as time expired.
"Nothing was really going through my mind," Holm said on the play. "I was just running until I kind of ran out of breath. It was just crazy. I still can't believe it happened. It's a moment you dream about."
Senior Ricky Brenna is proving to be the workhorse back Two Harbors hoped he'd be before breaking his leg in the second game of the season. Brenna finished with 34 carries for 146 yards and a touchdown to lead the Agates (8-2), who advance to play Perham (8-2) in the Class AAA quarterfinals at 3 p.m. Nov. 10 in Brainerd.
"It feels pretty darn good," said Nelson, who has coached the Agates 18 years. "Honestly, it's pretty surreal. You ask yourself, 'Is this really happening?' It's kind of like a dream. It just feels wonderful. There were a lot of emotions."
Two Harbors senior running back Joey Marker had 14 carries for 91 yards in just over a half before being limited with cramps. He had 85 of those yards and a 34-yard touchdown in staking the Agates to a 14-6 halftime lead. A Ryan Nowacki 39-yard field goal made it 17-6 going into the fourth quarter before the Titans stormed back with a pair of touchdowns from Bryce Giving, but again, GNK, which couldn't find a kicker this fall, failed on its two-point attempts. Another Nowacki field goal made it 20-18 with 3:29 remaining.
Two Harbors got the ball back with 1:36 to play and it appeared over, but not so fast. The Agates couldn't run out the clock, getting stuffed on fourth-and-1, giving GNK the ball back at the Two Harbors' 48 with 45 seconds remaining and quickly got in position to score.
"I'm not second-guessing that fourth-and-1, because that's something we've got to get," Nelson said. "Give GNK credit for stopping us there. We thought there could be a bad snap or big return, so get the first (down) and the game's over. We knew they weren't going to stop."
But that's how it stayed, however, as senior quarterback Nikolai Rajala was intercepted on second-and-10 from the 11.
Rajala finished with 181 passing yards, while junior running back Eli Conaway had 75 rushing yards for GNK (8-2), which had just six seniors but a great group of leaders, according to coach Bob Schwartz. The Titans lost standout running back Kole Platt to a broken leg last week, meaning they had to rely more on Rajala.
"I can't say enough about how well Nikolai played. Just an awesome performance by that kid," Schwartz said. "With all the times they had us against the ropes, who would have thought we'd have a chance to win the game? They could have knocked us out several times. They were pounding the ball at us, and we stopped them on downs. I just told the kids I love their heart, but they made one more play than we did tonight."
That'd be Holm, who left his man to make a play on the ball. Then it was off to the races.
"I was just watching the quarterback's eyes," said Holm, who at first thought about kneeling. "I got to the end zone and couldn't breathe, and they were all piling on top of me and I was suffocating. It was crazy.
"It's been a while. We all did this for coach Nelson and the whole Agates family. He's been so close so many years it's just an honor to contribute to that."
Getting his kicks
The difference in points on Thursday was the difference in Two Harbors having a kicker in Nowacki and GNK not having one.
"He's a huge weapon for us," Nelson said.
A kicker could have changed the Titans approach on their final drive.
Nelson said Nowacki, whose priority this fall was soccer, has made them from as far away as 50 yards in practice.
"Ryan approached me in the spring about kicking, and honestly, I thought, 'We'll see," Nelson said. "I was going to test him. You think, 'Yeah, he wants to kick, but is he going to be around? Is he going to work at it.' And the kid has been nothing but great.' He's just impressed the heck out of me. Great leg."
Two Harbors 7-7-3-9-26
TH - Ricky Brenna 1 run (Ryan Nowacki kick)
TH - Joey Marker 34 run (Nowacki kick)
GNK - Matt Jeska fumble recovery in end zone (run failed)
TH - Nowacki 39 field goal
GNK - Bryce Giving 11 run (pass failed)
TH - Nowacki 27 field goal
GNK - Dylan DeChampeau 40 pass from Giving (pass failed)
TH - Karsen Holm 100 interception return (no PAT attempted)