Preston Lowe had been a part of every big offensive play for Esko during the Section 7AAA football final against Aitkin on Thursday night, so it was no surprise that he was involved in the biggest play on defense as well.
The Eskomos senior safety allowed Aitkin wide receiver Jake Ince to run behind him on fourth-and-5 for a sure go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes at Malosky Stadium.
But Ince juggled the ball until it fell harmlessly to the turf, meaning Lowe didn’t turn from hero to goat in the biggest game of his life.
Lowe’s four touchdowns, including a go-ahead 94-yard pass from Dylan Vinje, paced Esko to a 29-28 victory over Aitkin and earned the Eskomos a berth in next week’s Class AAA state quarterfinals.
The top-seeded Eskomos (8-2) will face the Section 5AAA winner at 3 p.m. Saturday at Brainerd High School in the school’s 12th state tournament appearance.
Aitkin, which lost 41-14 to Esko during the regular season, finished 6-4.
In a game chock full of big plays, it was Vinje’s play-action pass to the deep middle to the speedster Lowe with 2:32 to play in the third quarter that stood out most. The score and a two-point conversion gave Esko a 29-22 lead.
“We ran it one other time and he easily could have scored the time before so we just thought we’d go back to it, and obviously it worked,” Vinje said. “I had all the confidence in the world in him, I just had to put the ball there and he just had to catch it and run with it.”
Esko coach Scott Arntson said there was no hesitation to call the play again despite being backed up on their own 6-yard line.
“The thought, at that point, was that we couldn’t afford to run it into the line of scrimmage three more times and punt,” Arntson said. “Sometimes your cards aren’t worth a dime if you don’t lay them down, and that was the idea. We had to try something.”
Gobblers coach Alan Hills said his defense wasn’t caught unaware, it just didn’t execute.
“We were kind of expecting it, but we didn’t get there coverage-wise,” he said. “They had missed it earlier in the game, and we didn’t do a good enough job of getting into position. That’s high school football in a nutshell, and you have to tip your hat to a great play call.”
The back-and-forth game, which included six lead changes, wasn’t finished.
Aitkin drove 57 yards in nine plays to score on Owen Miller’s 8-yard run with 6:08 to play. But the Gobblers, lacking a kicker all season, failed on the two-point run.
“They did a good job of stuffing it,” Hills said.
Esko fumbled the ball on the next play but the defense sacked Aitkin quarterback Kyle Cluff on fourth down. The Eskomos picked up two first downs to seal the victory.
“Not being on the losing sideline would be a little better, but our team battled,” Hills said. “It was a track meet up and down the field, but also with hard-fought, pound-it-down-the-field kind of running. It was a fun game to be a part of.”
Lowe opened the scoring on a 38-yard interception runback and later broke an inside reverse 87 yards for a 13-8 lead.
“All I saw was a hole and I just ran right through it,” Lowe said. “That was all on the (offensive) line.”
Halfback Owen Miller hit Gabe Long on a 26-yard scoring pass with 26 seconds remaining in the half to boost Aitkin into a 16-13 lead.
Leave it to Lowe to bring Esko back again, as he scored on an 11-yard burst through the line with 4:18 left in the third quarter.
The Gobblers were in the end zone a minute later on a 32-yard Miller run, but then came Lowe’s 94-yard sprint to paydirt on the next offensive play.
The triumph came three weeks after tragedy when these teams met Oct. 11 in Aitkin. On that night, Esko backup quarterback Jackson Pfister died shortly after collapsing on the field.
The Eskomos have been handling the emotion of that devastating loss.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the young men that we have and what they’ve had to overcome to get here,” Arntson said. “It’s been remarkable.”
For the players, the loss of their teammate has brought them closer together. And now they get to play November football, with Pfister’s memory on their minds and his No. 15 on their uniform.
“It’s a negative thing, but it’s something that brought us together and we’re all playing for him,” Vinje said. “It’s great that we won this game for him.”