There’s a new top dog for the time being in the North Star Athletic Association.
Or make that: Top Warrior.
The Waldorf football team rose to the occasion in a battle for first place in the NSAA, topping perennial league leader and No. 16-ranked Dickinson State, 23-22, with a resilient performance Saturday at Bolstorff Field.
“We’re fired up,” Waldorf head coach Josh Littrell said after his team’s 13-point fourth quarter comeback snapped a 17-game unbeaten streak for the Blue Hawks in league play.
The last time an NSAA foe bested Dickinson State was a 54-21 win by Dakota State back on Oct. 17, 2015.
And with the Blue Hawks leading 22-10 with 11 minutes, 20 seconds left in the contest, it looked like the dominance might continue, especially with the Warriors (3-3 overall, 3-0 NSAA) finding it tough to cash in against the league’s top-ranked defense.
But from that point on, it was all Warriors as Waldorf refused to lose this fight.
Mounting a comeback, Benjamin Mau fought to haul in a 26-yard pass from quarterback Hilton Joseph, a huge third-down conversion on a 67-yard Warrior march to answer the Blue Hawks score.
The drive that culminated in a 6-yard TD toss from Joseph to Don Jones with 8:16 left to play, bringing the Warrior sidelines and Waldorf crowd to life.
Two plays later, the Warrior added to that touchdown momentum when cornerback Cameron Newsome came down with a jump-ball interception at mid-field.
In a game filled with 10 turnovers, the fourth one of the day by Dickinson State provided an even bigger spark for the Waldorf offense, which three plays later hit pay-dirt as Joseph connected with Ryan Martinez, who was streaking down the left sideline, for what proved to be a game-winning 32-yard touchdown.
“We just stayed the course the entire day,” Littrell said of the Warrior offense, which overcame two interceptions and three fumbles on the day by playing flawless when the contest was on the line.
“Our defense allow us to win the game today,” the Warrior coach added.
Rightly so, and fittingly it was the Waldorf defense that came up with one last big play to win the day.
After both teams traded punts, the Blue Hawks found themselves with 1:52 left to keep their NSAA win streak in tack, and 98 yards to cover.
A penalty, then a 16-yard pass from Hayden Gibson to Gabe Meschke got Dickinson State rolling, but then the Warrior defense finished the win.
MaCoy Yeakel stepped in front of a Gibson pass near midfield for the third Waldorf interception of the day – the fifth turnover by the Blue Hawks – and his pick sealed the deal and set off a victory celebration as Waldorf took a knee three times to burn the final 1:23 on the game clock.
“Our defense, that’s the best I’ve seen our defense play,” Littrell said. “… Those defensive guys, they played their tails off today.
“You win championships when you play good defense.”
While the win doesn’t come with a championship crown, the victory does mean that the NSAA title race now goes through the Warriors who remain the lone unbeaten team in league play.
And moving into the NSAA’s top spot was kind of the message this week for Waldorf.
“Our message this week was ‘Why not us? We’ve been playing good football,’” Littrell said.
The Warriors definitely proved that Saturday.
Bo Evans led the way offensively for the Warriors, bulling his way to 177 yards and a touchdown on the ground on 26 carries.
Joseph added 48 yards rushing and was 19-of-28 for 205 yards passing, with two touchdowns, and Samuel Huntley caught eight passes for 85 yards to lead the Warrior receivers.
Of course defense was the biggest key for Waldorf, which got 12 tackles from Daequan Nelson, who also recovered a fumble, 11 tackles from Yeakel, who had the game-clinching interception, and interceptions from James Jackson Jr. and Newsome, and a fumble recovery from DeShaun Quinn.
The first-place Warriors now look to continue their three-game win streak when they play at Valley City State next Saturday at 2 p.m.