'I do what they ask me to do.' Connor Dunlea did everything for Lost River, leading the Raiders to victory (Andre Panse)
"I do what they ask me to do." Connor Dunlea did everything for Lost River, leading the Raiders to victory (Andre Panse)

COTTAGE GROVE — Lost River used superior special teams play to score 20 first-quarter points and was never challenged in shutting out top-seeded St. Paul, 43-0, Saturday afternoon at the 2022 OSAA / OnPoint Community Credit Union 1A-8 Player Football State Championship at Cottage Grove High School. The dominating effort avenged a 14-point Week 3 loss to the Buckaroos, and gave the Raiders their first state title in 18 years.

“It feels good,” said Raider head coach Dennis Dunlea, who has been head coach for the past 23 years. “I’ve gotten to do it before, but I’m happy for the kids to get to experience this.”

The Raiders, who won the coin toss and deferred to the second half, scored on their opening drive and then capitalized on two St. Paul mistakes on special teams to tack on two more scores before St. Paul touched the ball again.

The Buckaroos, the highest scoring team in 1A[8], could not establish the run and hurt themselves with four interceptions and a fumble, several of which foiled chances to establish momentum, get on the board and get back in the game.

St. Paul also played deeply shorthanded. The Buckaroos had only 16 players who could play and were without several regulars, including losing two key playmakers lost in the semifinals last week to serious injuries.

“No excuses,” St. Paul coach Tony Smith said. “We got beat by a very good football team. We didn’t play well and they played well. There’ not much else to say.”

On a day when several Lost River players had standout performances, Connor Dunlea stood head and shoulders above everyone else. The junior intercepted three passes, recovered a fumble to set up a score, passed for 58 yards and a score, ran for 55 yards and a score, and made a spectacular third down pass reception for 22 yards to extend a scoring drive. Oh, and he also had five tackles.

Dunlea also was part of the key sequence in the first quarter that ended up deciding the game. He recovered two pooched kickoffs off the toe of Codey Lyman to help Lost River keep possession, and score multiple times against a weary St. Paul defense.

“He was looking forward to getting back here since last year in the semis,” Coach Dunlea said. “His brother got hurt last week. That was pretty emotional for him. He just played and played everywhere.”

St. Paul, which entered the game 10-0 and averaging almost 55 points per game, had the game’s opening possession on a sunny but cool Saturday afternoon. The Buckaroos got a nice kickoff return from Clay Smith to start its first drive from the 32-yard-line and found hope when Warren Rose, the 6-5 tight end whose play during the regular season matchup was a key reason St. Paul prevailed, got loose for a 23-yard gain. St. Paul could not drive deeper than the Lost River 39-yard-line, however, and got behind the chains thanks to a holding penalty and eventually turned the ball over on downs.

Lost River, which is known for its defense, took over at its own 40 and needed just three plays to find the end zone. The key play was an option pass from halfback Dunlea to quarterback Chase McAuliffe for 42 yards and a touchdown. McAuliffe got behind the defense, made a nice catch using his hands and ran unfettered for the score. He also ran in the two-point conversion, making it 8-0 Lost River with just over three minutes gone in the game.

The next possession also belonged to Lost River. That’s because Dunlea, playing on the kickoff team’s right flank, recovered Lyman’s pooch kick on one bounce without being challenged. Lost River gained possession at the St. Paul 44 and cashed in the opportunity in five plays. A pitch left to Dunlea on third-and-seven for 15 yards was a big play and set up an even bigger one: a 31-yard touchdown pass from McAuliffe to Isaac Hernandez. Split wide left on second-and-15, Hernandez beat his defender off the line of scrimmage and ran five yards clear. It was an easy pitch and catch for six and gave Lost River a 14-0 lead midway through the quarter.

The next possession also belonged to Lost River. That’s because Dunlea AGAIN recovered Lyman’s pooch kick without being challenged by the besieged St. Paul kickoff return team. Lost River started at the Buckaroo 36-yard-line and scored in five plays. Dunlea was responsible for the drive’s two key plays, a third-and-15 reception that he needed to tip to himself before hauling it in; and a 24-yard scamper to the left pylon on a pitch play.

St. Paul finally got the ball back on the next kickoff, but the damage was done and irreversible, both on the scoreboard and to the psyche of a good Buckaroo team playing without some of its high-powered weapons.

“The first quarter seemed to go our way pretty well but it was far from over,” Coach Dunlea said. “Playing a program like theirs, they’re not going to go away. So we knew we had to pay the whole game.”

Though Lost River did not score again before halftime – Smith played stout from his linebacker position to lead the Bucks and they had a fantastic goal line stand to deny the Raiders early in the second quarter – neither did St. Paul. The Buckaroos, three times before the half, found their way into Lost River territory. Two of the drives were foiled by Dunlea interceptions. The last, seconds before halftime, ended with Lyman batting down a pass at the goal line as time expired in the half.

“We didn’t make great decisions,” Smith said. “We also got pressured.”

Lost River’s lead may have been robust at 20-0 after the first 24 minutes, and the Raiders may have had a sizeable 223-135 advantage in yards from scrimmage, but the Raiders knew they would need to score more points after the break. The first time the teams met, Lost River squandered a 16-0 lead. The state championship game was no place for a repeat of that calamity.

The second half opened and Lost River wasted little time asserting its dominance. Facing third-and two from their own 28-yard-line, the Raiders handed the ball to fullback Nathan Dalton, who got stuffed at the line of scrimmage. Stuffed, but not wrapped up. The senior bounced the run to the outside, found room and ran 72 yards for the touchdown. He also scored the two-point conversion. Ninety seconds into the third quarter, Lost River led, 28-0.

St. Paul had its chances to cut into the lead and maybe get back in the game, but the Buckaroos could not make that one momentum-shifting play. The Bucks recovered a fumbled punt

two and one-half minutes into the third quarter and moved the ball to the Lost River 37 before McAuliffe intercepted a deep shot. After Lost River went 3-and-out on the ensuing drive before punting, St. Paul completed a fourth down pass to Rose for 16 yards to get as close as the Lost River 36 before Dunlea ended the threat with his third pick of the game.

With 47 seconds left in the third quarter, Lost River put together a drive, which included a halfback pass from Dunlea to Emmett O’Brien for 16 yards and culminated when McAuliffe found Hernandez wide open towards the left sideline. The senior zigged and zagged his way into the end zone to make it 34-0 Raiders. Dunlea tacked on the two-point conversion, sending the game to running time before the fourth quarter even began.

Lost River added one final score early in the final period when St. Paul fumbled on its first play after the start of running time. Dunlea – who else? – picked up the fumble and looked like he got in for the score, but the side judge ruled that he stepped out at the three. Dalton scored on the next play and Lyman kicked the extra point to supply the final score.

For the game, Lost River finished with 390 yards of offense to 195 for St. Paul.

Said Smith: “I think our inability to establish the run… when you have to throw on a consistent basis it’s going to be hard to be effective offensively.”

Lost River’s win closed out a season in which the Raiders defeated St. Paul for the first time ever and eliminated two-time defending champion Adrian in the quarterfinals, the same Adrian team that blasted Lost River in the semifinals a year ago.

Coach Dunlea said the key to victory was simplicity.

“We modified our game plan,” he explained. “We decided to be more fundamental, do our own jobs and play fast.”

Dalton finished with 127 yards on the ground for Lost River and went over the 1,000-yard mark for the season. Hernandez scored on both his receptions, from McAuliffe, who passed for 111 yards. Carson Parris, Joel DeJong and especially Kayden Hartman were defensive standouts. Hartman had six tackles, a tackle for loss and two passes defended.

George Pohlschneider threw for 165 yards for St. Paul but he also tossed the four interceptions that hampered the Bucks’ ability to score. Smith, a 1,000 yard rusher, finished with only 22 yards on the ground, but he was a stalwart on the defensive end. Rose caught seven balls for seven yards. Diego Medina made a nice second-quarter catch off of the best ball Pohlschneider threw all night and he also was a strong defender in the secondary.

So, St. Paul remains at six state titles in program history, none since 2010.The Bucks have not finished second three times over the last four state championship brackets.

“It wasn’t for lack of preparation,” Smith told his kids. “It wasn’t for lack of attitude. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Today they were better than us.”

Smith became emotional after the game talking about the journey the team went on to be in the bidding for the state title.

“We didn’t lose because of the things we coach them on: attitude and hard work, being great people,” he said. “We lost because that was a better team today.”

The shutout marked the eighth time this season that Lost River (11-1) had held an opponent to 10 or fewer points. The Raiders outscored their opponents 127-22 in the playoffs.

“It feels really good,” Coach Dunlea said. “I think our kids just played really well.”

Connor Dunlea praised the players on both lines for setting the tone for Lost River’s win and for helping him make the game changing plays that he did. He said that playing well and winning was especially gratifying because his brother, senior end/linebacker, Grady Dunlea, was injured last week and could not play.

“It means everything because he didn’t get the chance to play,” Dunlea said.