RANDOLPH - After eight straight lopsided victories, Randolph coach Pat Slater expressed concern over how his team would react when it was in a close game.
Slater got a chance to find out Friday night, and the Cardinals passed the test.
Randolph jumped out to a 23-0 lead and got two key fourth-quarter interceptions inside their own 10-yard line to preserve a 23-8 victory over Maple Grove in a Section 6 Class D semifinal.
The Randolph Cardinals beat the Maple Grove Red Dragons in the Class D semifinals
''It was fun,'' Slater said. ''The kids had to work. We could have panicked and threw our heads down into the dirt and said, 'Oh no, here we go.' But they managed to make a couple plays and put the game away.''
The next stop for the Cardinals, 9-0 and ranked No. 1 in Class D in the state, is Ralph Wilson Stadium, where they will take on Silver Creek for the sectional title.
Randolph looked like it was going to cruise into the title game when it took a 23-0 lead midway through the third period on a 9-yard run by Brent Robbins.
Randolph’s Brent Robbins (25) carries the ball while Maple Grove’s Skyler Liddell (20) prepares to stop him during a Class D semifinal football game at Randolph on Friday night.
P-J photo by Valory S. Isaacson
But that was when things got interesting.
Maple Grove abandoned its running game which netted only six yards for the game and took to the air. Quarterback Alex Grace completed 5 of 9 passes for 59 yards on the Red Dragons' ensuing possession and hit Jordan Saxton on a 1-yard touchdown strike to get his team on the scoreboard. Grace connected with Gage Milliman on the two-point conversion to cut Randolph's lead to 23-8 with two minutes remaining in the third quarter.
A Randolph three-and-out put the momentum firmly in Maple Grove's favor and it moved 33 yards in two plays to get to the Cardinals' 20-yard line. Grace attempted another pass toward the goal line but George Pitchford stepped in front of it for an interception at the 5.
The Cardinals appeared poised to put the game away after they drove the length of the field. Facing a 3rd-and-6 at Maple Grove's 3, Mason Burch took a handoff and bounced outside, but the Red Dragons stripped the ball and recovered.
Grace connected on a couple big pass plays to Skyler Liddell to put Maple Grove at the Randolph 21 with plenty of time remaining. But Grace's 3rd-down pass was broken up by Pitchford and intercepted by Robbins.
The Cardinals were able to pick up a few key first downs on their next possession and ran the clock out.
''They're the No. 1 team in the state and they proved it tonight,'' Maple Grove coach Curt Fischer said. ''This isn't the way I wanted things to end. I love Maple Grove but all good things come to an end. I love the kids and I'm sure that Maple Grove will be back.''
The defenses for both teams were very good against some talented offensive players.
Robbins did break free for a few big runs and finished with 180 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries. Burch added 77 yards on 20 carries.
Grace completed 15 of 32 passes for 196 yards for Maple Grove.
A key part of the game was special teams. The Cardinals took advantage of some short punts and good returns to give themselves short fields. Five of their drives started in Maple Grove territory.
The Red Dragons, meanwhile, didn't start any drives in Randolph territory and twice had drive starts inside their own 20.
''We really thought special teams and field position would be crucial but we lost that war,'' Fischer said. ''What are you going to do? We did a great job but they did a better job. Special teams and field position will beat you every time.''
Randolph started the scoring when Brady Morrison sacked Grace for a safety with five minutes remaining in the first quarter. The Cardinals took over at the Maple Grove 47 following the free kick and ran the ball seven straight times, with Robbins scoring a touchdown from 11 yards out. Nick Milliman kicked his first of three extra points and Randolph led, 9-0.
In the second quarter, a high snap to the punter gave the Cardinals the ball at the Maple Grove 21. After five runs put the ball at the 5, quarterback John Morgante threw his only pass of the game and completed it for a touchdown to Morrison, putting Randolph on top, 16-0.
''We just made mistakes,'' Fischer said. ''We missed a block on the safety, had a bad snap on a punt it's just little things and little things win or lose games for you.''
Morgante and Thomas Cornell led Randolph's defense with five tackles apiece.
The only big negative for the Cardinals was twice fumbling the ball inside Maple Grove's 5-yard line. But Slater wasn't dwelling on those mistakes in the locker room after the game.
''You don't get angry now,'' he said. ''You're happy you won the game. That's the way games are supposed to be played, back and forth and everybody's into it. That's what high school football is about. Maple Grove is a big rival and the stakes with going to the Ralph, you couldn't ask for anything more.''