The thunder and lightning never materialized in Zimmerman on Thursday night, and neither did the Thunder offense as Mound Westonka avenged last season’s playoff loss in a 34-14 victory in a Section 6AAAA matchup. Even though both teams graduated a number of starters from last year's game, the intensity was the same as Zimmerman hosted their senior night, which included pregame fireworks.
The White Hawks (6-1) vaunted offense wasn’t as explosive as in past games, but Westonka used special teams and timely defensive stops to grind out the win. A 32-yard punt return by Jack Nelson set Westonka up in good field position on their second possession. The drive eventually stalled but Sam Gaylord nailed a 28-yard FG to put the White Hawks on the scoreboard and give them an early 3-0 lead. Gaylord’s ensuing kickoff went through the hands of the Zimmerman returner and bounded forward to the 29-yard line where Joe Sluka slid in to recover the loose football. “Sam takes a lot of pride in executing his kickoff placement where the team needs. The kickoff against Zimmerman was a perfect example of just that,” said Special Teams Coordinator Jared Chapman. Four plays later, Ray Beiningen took the handoff up the middle and broke five tackles on his way to a 21-yard score and a 9-0 advantage with 1:16 left in the first quarter.
On the Thunder’s next possession, a Westonka personal foul penalty put Zimmerman (2-5) at midfield, but Carter Kleinsasser sacked Zimmerman QB Thomas McEachern for a loss of 10 yards on first down, and then an incomplete pass on the first play of the second quarter forced a punt. Left-footed punter Brennan Pardino rolled to his left and right into the outstretched arm of Roman Larsen whose block bounced once off the turf and into the hands of Dylan Sloan, who rumbled 37 yards down to the Thunder 2-yard line. Beiningen found paydirt once again from a yard out, however, the 2-point conversion was denied. The White Hawks led 15-0 with 10:56 remaining in the first half.
With 5:34 left in the second quarter, Kleinsasser forced a high throw by McEachern on 4th down on the Westonka 44-yard line. White Hawks QB Cole Drill then completed back-to-back passes, including a 16-yarder to tight end Dylan Holappa. Drill scrambled for six yards setting up a 4th down play. Drill dumped a screen pass to the left for Beiningen where he got great blocking downfield allowing him to weave through for a 32-yard TD. Gaylord’s extra point made it 22-0. The next play from scrimmage, McEachern took a shotgun snap and darted down the right sideline where he was eventually knocked down from behind by JT Kimbrough who came from the other side of the field to catch him at the 5-yard line. Larsen would sack McEachern for a 4-yard loss, setting up another 4th down play for the Thunder. McEachern’s pass was knocked down by Kimbrough at the goal line, giving the ball back to the White Hawks. “JT’s hustle play was a huge play as it not only saved us from Zimmerman scoring a late first half touchdown, but we also were able to turn them over on downs and put another touchdown on the board before halftime. We are constantly preaching to our players that every play is extremely meaningful, and JT proved that message to the fullest on that play,” said Head Coach Nick David.
It took Westonka just 3 plays to find the end zone one more time in the half. Drill hit Holappa on a 24-yard gain, and then found leading receiver Max Kraay for a 64-yard catch and run down to the Thunder 6-yard line. Drill lofted the ball down the middle of the field where Kraay out jumped the Zimmerman defender. On the next play, Beiningen bounced off four Thunder players to power in for his third touchdown of the night and a 28-0 halftime lead. “Anytime you can get a stop and flip the table and score right away is an impact moment in the game. Instead of 21-7 at half, it was 28-0 and that was a huge lift for us emotionally,” said Offensive Coordinator Mike Wallace.
The rain finally arrived with the second-half kickoff, nonetheless, it was a similar start for Zimmerman as they drove into Westonka territory before being stopped on a 4th down run by McEachern. The turnover on downs gave the ball to the White Hawks at their own 40-yard line. After three straight Drill incompletions from midfield, the White Hawks lined up to punt. However, Drill saw daylight to the left side and took off, getting a block from Jaaron Konkel, breaking a tackle at the 10-yard line, and then another at the goal line, eventually diving in for a 50-yard TD run. The White Hawks led 34-0 with 8:04 left in the 3rd quarter. Zimmerman would ultimately find the end zone on a trick play when wide receiver Santiago Garcia took a short pass to the left and threw to a wide-open Jaxson Wendorf. McEachern would tack on a late TD run in the fourth quarter for the Thunder making the final score 34-14.
The White Hawks defense put pressure on McEachern almost every play resulting in 7 total sacks, with Kleinsasser and Larsen each tallying 2 sacks on the night. The Thunder offense was mostly held in check, except for three plays that went for 73, 28, and 27 yards. Owen McCue led the team with a career-high 9 tackles (7 solo). Morgan Nester and Brandt Tebbs both finished with 7 tackles, while Larsen, Nelson, Kleinsasser, Konkel, and Drake Woodruff had 6 tackles apiece. John Seemann had a sack that forced a fumble which he also recovered.
Drill threw for 183 yards and rushed for 59 yards accounting for two touchdowns. Beiningen was held to a season-low 83 yards on 18 carries, but he did find the end zone on three occasions giving him 22 total touchdowns on the season. Alan Zuniga-Lopez had 7 carries for 33 yards, while Kraay caught 3 balls for 79 yards. Holappa had 2 receptions for 40 yards.
The final regular season game for Westonka is this Wednesday (due to MEA week) at Haddorff Field as the White Hawks will take on the Benilde-St. Margaret’s Red Knights at 7 p.m. in a Class AAAA Skyway District tilt. Westonka will recognize this year's 16 Seniors and their parents in a pre-game ceremony. The White Hawks have also locked up the #2 seed in the Section 6AAAA playoffs and will host a game on Saturday, October 28th at 1 p.m. against a team to be determined.