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Zach Hacker: One for the ages

I was in rare territory Saturday. Not physically. As an alumnus of Minnesota State University, Mankato, I've spent a lot of time at Blakeslee Stadium, home of the Mavericks football team. But in terms of sports fandom, what I experienced doesn't ...

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DUSTIN MICHELSON/EMPORIA STATE UNIVERSITY Emporia State University wide receiver Kavaski Ervin (6) stiff-arms Minnesota State, Mankato linebacker Jordan Campbell Saturday during the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs. The Hornets upset the Mavericks 51-49 on a last-second field goal.

I was in rare territory Saturday.
Not physically. As an alumnus of Minnesota State University, Mankato, I’ve spent a lot of time at Blakeslee Stadium, home of the Mavericks football team. But in terms of sports fandom, what I experienced doesn’t come around every day.
I attended Saturday’s NCAA Division II first-round playoff game genuinely wanting both teams to win. That is an incredibly rare occurrence for me. Even if I’m half-watching a game on TV between two teams I’m completely indifferent to, there’s usually a player or coach I like or dislike enough to sway my rooting interest.
Obviously both teams can’t win, but if I had my way, they would have. (And the game that unfolded between MSU and Emporia State might have been worthy of such an exception.)
On one hand, I had my alma mater: the place I spent the final two years of my college career and still try to follow in its athletic endeavors. On the other, Emporia State University: a school I covered and at which I developed relationships with coaches, players and administration within the athletics department. When you spend enough time following a certain team you can’t help but develop an interest in it.
I was genuinely torn.
It was a weird situation. When a big, potentially game-changing play happened, I was both thrilled and a little disappointed. Honestly, I didn’t even know that was possible.
Anyway, enough about me and more about the game.
As I type this Monday evening, more than 48 hours after ESU sophomore Austin Morton’s 33-yard field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired to give the seventh-seeded Hornets a 51-49 upset victory over No. 2 MSU, I’m still at a loss for words. I couldn’t begin to count all of the football games I’ve watched in my life, but Saturday’s was unquestionably one of the best. The right words to describe it don’t exist - or if they do, it’s only in a realm far beyond my vocabulary.
It was a game that featured 100 total points, four lead changes and nine turnovers. But that doesn’t even scratch the surface.

The CliffsNotes version goes something like this:
Emporia State safety JP Lorentz picks up a fumble and runs it back 45 yards for a touchdown on the game’s second play from scrimmage. Minnesota State responds by out-scoring its opponent 28-3 during the next quarter and a half, putting it on top 28-10 with six minutes to go before halftime.
Hornet quarterback Brent Wilson - a finalist for the 2015 Harlon Hill Trophy, akin to the Heisman in Division I - connects with Kavaski Ervin on touchdown passes of 43 and 48 yards to close the gap to 28-24 by halftime. A 73-yard TD strike to Morris Williams II early in the third quarter puts ESU back on top. Two touchdowns later, it has 35 unanswered points and leads 45-28 late in the third.
Minnesota State comes back.
After a switch at quarterback, the Mavericks’ replacement signal-caller Ricky Lloyd scores on a 5-yard run. Midway through the fourth, Lloyd hits Bryce Duncan on a 10-yard touchdown pass to put the home team back up 49-48.
The Hornets drive right back down the field and look poised to go back on top. But with 4:26 to play, MSU’s Rob Myers picks off a tipped ball in the end zone and the Mavs have a chance to put the game on ice with a couple first downs.
They don’t do it.
On third-and-2 with less than three minutes left, Lohrentz picks off his third pass of the game deep in Maverick territory. ESU is able to run the clock down to three seconds before spiking the ball at the MSU 16. Under heavy pressure, Morton drills the field goal.
Ballgame. Pandemonium from the Emporia State sideline as the Hornets rush the field. Utter devastation on the Mavericks’ side with players dropping to their knees in disbelief.
At that particular moment, I think I was feeling a little of both. I was thrilled for the Hornets, but I couldn’t believe what I’d just saw.
Shortly after the game, I was down on the field with some friends from Emporia. By then, the fans had streamed out onto the field. Players, coaches, parents, fans and anyone who had made the snowy trek to Mankato rejoiced, exchanging hugs and handshakes with nothing but pure elation on their faces.
For a moment, I just stood there and watched it all. Some of the folks I knew, many I didn’t. Either way, I couldn’t help but see what the win meant to each and every one of them.
I guess I got swept up in it all, because for a while, I couldn’t have cared less that the win had come against “my team.” That town, that university and those people are a big part of my life. Standing 20 feet or so out from the Hornets’ sideline, I was one of them again.
I suppose that is one of the many things that makes sports special. They have a transformative quality that I think can only come from a shared experience like the post-game celebration.
It has been more than a year and a half since I lived in Emporia. I haven’t seen the Hornets play a football game in more than two years, and many of the players I watched on that particular afternoon have since graduated. Despite all that time and all of those changes, for a few minutes there it was like I never left.
With the win, Emporia State earned its first playoff win since making the leap to NCAA Division II in 1991. On Saturday, it will play its first Sweet 16 appearance against third-seeded Henderson State. This time, there’s no question for whom I’ll be rooting.

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DUSTIN MICHELSON/EMPORIA STATE UNIVERSITY Minnesota State University, Mankato starting quarterback Nick Pieruccini (6) looks for running room during the first half of the Mavericks’ playoff loss to Emporia State Saturday in Mankato.

Related Topics: MANKATO
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