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Stillwater’s defense comes up big in shutout win over Centennial

Codrington's punt return seals win for NC Central

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Sep. 3—Physicality.

Stillwater senior lineman Mason Wilson said the Ponies have preached it all summer. It was in that area where the Ponies were beaten in their final game in 2020.

Centennial and Stillwater met in a section final to close the football season last fall. The Cougars quite literally ran all over the Ponies that November night in Stillwater.

Centennial ran 58 times for 353 yards en route to a 27-14 victory over Stillwater.

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Thursday night was a far different story. The Ponies’ defensive front wouldn’t again allow itself to be bullied at the line of scrimmage.

Stillwater stymied Centennial’s rushing attack in the Ponies’ 7-0 home victory in the season opener Thursday. The Cougars rushed 26 times for just 93 yards. Centennial back Lance Liu, who ran 33 times for 215 yards last November, went for just 39 yards Thursday on fewer than 4 yards per carry.

“The last two years we’ve lost in state (playoffs) to them … we got (whopped). They ran all over us,” Wilson said. “(Tonight) we laid the wood on them and took the W. and it’s huge. Super big.”

Ponies coach Beau LaBore noted it’s always Stillwater’s goal to out-hit its opponent. But that’s hard to do against Centennial.

“These guys are big and they come right at you,” LaBore said. “We’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple months, and particularly over the last couple weeks, trying to come right at each other. It’s been a lot of ones versus ones to simulate what we knew we were going to see tonight.”

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Stillwater certainly looked prepared. The Ponies held Centennial — who was integrated nine new starters from a year ago, including a sophomore quarterback, to just 100 yards of total offense. Centennial coach Mike Diggins noted the Cougars will improve, but they had no answers for Stillwater’s defensive front Thursday.

“They’re a lot better defensively than they were last year. That’s a good football team,” Diggins said. “That’s probably the worst offensive output we’ve had in the last 5 years running our stuff. That team deserves a lot of credit. Beau did a nice job getting ready and they should be proud of what they did.”

Wilson said he and his teammates trusted one another on defense. Everyone fulfilled their responsibilities.

“Nobody was out here trying to be the hero,” Wilson said.

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The Ponies’ offense, meanwhile, flashed a few instances of explosion. Stillwater appears primed to lean on the arm of junior quarterback Max Shikenjanski — son of former Gophers basketball player Jim Shikenjanski. Max delivered a couple big throws Thursday, including a 39-yard strike to Joseph Hoheisel on the Ponies’ first play from scrimmage — and tallied the game’s lone score, a one-yard sneak in the second quarter.

Stillwater’s offense got a little more conservative in the second half, choosing to rely more on running back Edward O’Keefe. For good reason, considering how dominant Stillwater’s defense was.

Stillwater’s offense held possession for much of the third quarter. After a long drive stalled to start the quarter, Centennial fumbled a handoff on the ensuing snap, giving Stillwater the ball back on the Cougars’ 20-yard-line. To the credit of Centennial’s defense, it again stopped Stillwater, turning the Ponies over on downs at the Centennial 3-yard-line.

But the extended time on the field seemed to wear on Centennial’s defense. Fatigue may have reared its head late in the game, as Stillwater put together an impressive drive, featuring a heavy dose of O’Keefe on the ground, along with an impressive 3rd and 7 pickup on a pass from Shikenjanski to Hoheisel. The drive — which ended with Stillwater (1-0) punting from the Centennial 39-yard-line, ate up a good chunk of the clock, leaving Centennial (0-1) to start its final drive from its own 20 yard line with 2 minutes, 28 seconds to play.

That set Stillwater’s defense up for its final act. After a pair of incompletions, Ponies’ defensive back Samuel Ness pulled down an interception that essentially ended the game, earning Stillwater a big win that will factor in heavily for seeding come playoff time.

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“This is everything,” Wilson said. “We knew coming into this year we had something special. We’ve been waiting for this year since freshman year and our defense, that just boosted us even higher. But we’re going to stay humble and we’re going to keep working, because we know the end goal is state, not Week 1.”

Briefly

George Thole, who coached Stillwater in his first game against Mounds View 50 years ago this week, was honored at Thursday’s contest.

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