The Columbia Heights football team came oh so close on Tuesday. So close to taking one more big step up, so close to putting more distance between what was and what is. The Hylanders lost to Minnehaha Academy 29-16 in the first round of the Class 3A Section 4 playoffs, and it hurt.
But it won’t take long for the players to realize what they accomplished this season: They won. For a program that had won a grand total of two regular-season games in the previous four seasons, finishing 2012 with a 4-5 record was a strong statement by a team that is on its way back.
“We won four games and that’s a huge step for our program,” coach Matt Townsend said after the loss at Minnehaha Academy. “We were down a little bit the last few years, struggling and trying to figure things out.”
Victory No. 5 was within the Hylanders’ grasp before slipping away in the final five minutes. Columbia Heights surrendered the first touchdown but came back to lead 16-7 on a touchdown pass from David Dixon to Deondre Sanstad and a scoring run by Dixon. Those touchdowns countered scoring passes by Minnehaha quarterback Erik Madryga to Dane Birkeland and Jonathan Webb.
The 30-yard TD pass to Webb made it Hylanders 16, Redhawks 14 with 5:27 to go in the fourth quarter. Minnehaha recovered an onside kick and took the lead on a 4-yard touchdown run by Alec Chamberlain. After Columbia Heights couldn’t gain a first down, the Redhawks set the outcome in stone on another short TD run by Chamberlain with four seconds to play.
Finishing 4-5 was a much different outcome than in prior seasons. Since 2006 the Hylanders’ best finish was 3-6 in 2007. They were 2-8 in 2009 (with one postseason win), 1-8 in 2010 and didn’t win a game in 2008 or 2011.
For the 12 seniors on the current Hylanders roster, Tuesday’s game was the end of the football road. But for all those underclassmen? Thoughts are already turning to next season.
“I think we took a big step this year,” Townsend said. “We return a lot of underclassmen, which I just told them. We thank our seniors, and hopefully we’ll take this game and build on it and think about it.”
Dixon and workhorse running back Daireus Mock are sophomores, and both of those youngsters have bright futures. The Hylanders played an independent schedule this season after leaving the North Suburban Conference, and their first victory came in Week 1, 52-24 over St. Paul Humboldt. That was a wonderful start to the turnaround.
“It was huge,” Townsend said. “It was good for our community, it was good for our fans, it was good for our kids and our staff. This year you had a little bit of hop in the hallways again with football doing some things, so there’s a little bit more of a buzz.”
Then came victories over St. James, St. Paul Como Park and Minneapolis Edison, with losses to St. Paul Harding, Greenway/Nashwauk-Keewatin, Maple River and St. Peter.
“I think we’ve got a lot of hope,” said Columbia Heights activities director Mark Corless. “A lot of these kids are young. They know already pretty much what our schedule will be next year, and they’re certainly teams we can be competitive with if we get better. It’s not like these are walk-over games, but they will dress about the same number of kids we dress. That’s what’s good. They have hope in every game, which is huge.”
The 2013 season will be here in a hurry, and Townsend told his young players to learn from Tuesday’s mistakes.
“We have some young kids who need to look at this game and how close they were, the mental mistakes they had. Hopefully now they learn and when they get into a situation again, they finish it.”
--To see photos from the Columbia Heights-Minnehaha Academy game, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 208
*Miles John has driven: 3,589
(*During the 2012-13 school year)
--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn