High school football playoffs: St. Thomas Academy rallies from 23-0 deficit to stun Alexandria in Class 5A semifinal

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When St. Thomas Academy took over on offense with 7:48 left in the third quarter, its student section began to chant, “We can’t hear you.”

“Why so quiet?” was the refrain a couple of minutes later when the Cadets took their first lead.

St. Thomas Academy tight end Chase Young, center, celebrates with his teammates after defeating Alexandria Area 42-30 in a Class 5A semifinal game in the State Football Tournament at US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023. (Craig Lassig / Special to the Pioneer Press)

Stunned, shellshocked or dazed may best describe the red-and-black clad Alexandria supporters at that point, many looking at a quiet ride back up Interstate 94.

“Long drive home” was a brief Cadets student section chant late in Friday’s game.

Down 23-0 in the second quarter, St. Thomas Academy scored 42 unanswered points to advance to the Class 5A championship with a 42-30 win over Alexandria inside U.S. Bank Stadium.

“We knew that we had it in us to come back, have some good plays, have some big energy plays,” said Edward Knapp, who led the Cadets with nine tackles.

“And we need Savion,” he added, a big smile across his face.

Savion Hart had another stellar outing for the Cadets with 227 rushing yards and three scores. Maximus Sims threw for 245 yards and three scores, two to Luke Dobbs, who finished with 114 yards receiving.

The 10-2 Cadets get the winner of Saturday night’s semifinal between Andover (10-1) and Chanhassen (11-0) at 4 p.m. Nov. 25 back at U.S. Bank Stadium. St. Thomas Academy’s lone title came in 1975. It has five runner-up finishes since, including three in the previous seven tournaments.

Hart, a Mr. Football finalist who has 2,416 rushing yards and 37 touchdowns this season, said the focus beginning each drive is what’s ahead of them, not what’s on the scoreboard.

“You can still pull out a win if you go out and make the plays,” he said.

Down by 15 with 1:58 before halftime, Hart had an 86-yard run before scoring from the 5 on the ensuing play to get his team within 23-15. Sims connected with Dobbs for an 11-yard score earlier in the frame.

Before the second half, Sims told his defensive teammates St. Thomas Academy would win if it got one turnover.

It came quickly.

A tip by Charlie Probst led to a pick by Charlie Kern on the Cardinals’ third offensive snap. Hart scored from the 16 on the next play and added the two-point conversion to make it 23-all 94 seconds into the second half.

Four plays into the next St. Thomas Academy series, Sims rolled out to his right and found Avery Buckner behind the Alexandria secondary, a 69-yard connection for the first Cadets lead.

“When this kid sets his feet, there’s no one that throws like him in the state,” said coach Travis Walch, looking at Sims.

Then, arguably the biggest defensive play of the night.

On fourth-and-10, from the Cadets’ 30, Chase Thompson connected with Mason Gorghuber late in the third quarter. Theodore Benz quickly wrapped up the receiver and brought him to the turf less than a yard shy of what was needed. Video replay upheld the spot.

A 36-yard pass from Sims to Chase Young early in the ensuing drive set up a 29-yard hookup for the duo and a 36-23 lead on the first play of quarter four.

Hart added a 21-yard run with 6:12 left to play.

Linebacker Jacob Lanoux could only lament the Cardinals uncharacteristically missing tackles. “We just couldn’t wrap up and execute.”

“We missed assignment on the backside that gave up some long touchdowns, things we’ve been pretty clean on all season,” added coach Mike Empting.

A 61-yard reception by Evan Kludt and a 5-yard catch by Gorghuber made it 14-0 Alexandria. Macklen Heydt scored from the 2 on the third Cardinals possession, but the extra point was blocked.

Walch said responding to a negative is something often talked about in the Cadets’ program.

“That is the first positive thing that happened in this whole game for us, and that is response,” Walch said. “Down 20-0 and our kids said, ‘Let’s Play.’”

Thompson was 28 of 47 for 330 yards with two scores, but Alexandria (11-1) failed to earn its first title game appearance since 1994. The school’s lone title came in 1974.

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