The Marshall football team poses with its trophy after claiming the 2021 Eastern Suburban Conference championship Friday, Oct. 15 at Markesan High School.

An hour-long bus ride up to Markesan High School couldn’t slow down the Marshall football team Friday, Oct. 15. Instead, the Cardinals came out hot, scoring four touchdowns in the first half to secure a 33-22 victory over the Hornets. The win was much more than a conference victory. With it, Marshall finishes the 2021 regular season as the undefeated Eastern Suburban Conference champion. This is Marshall’s second consecutive undefeated regular season.

Entering the game, both Marshall and Markesan had unblemished records in conference play. Markesan had bullied its way through Eastern Suburban Conference play with a potent option run attack orchestrated by brothers Ryan (quarterback) and Tyler (running back) Mast. The Cardinals knew it would take an equally impressive offensive show to take down the Hornets.

The Cardinals wasted no time showing they weren’t leaving without that trophy. On just the second play for the Marshall offense, senior quarterback Craig Ward connected with senior running back Bryce Frank, who was split out as a slot receiver, on a slant pattern. Frank caught the pass, slipped a defender, and was gone. Just 50 seconds into the game, Marshall had a 6-0 lead.

Both teams kept the ball primarily on the ground for the entire first quarter, so it zipped by in no time. The Cardinals carried their 6-0 lead into the second quarter with possession and a solid drive forming. Marshall would strike quickly again in the second quarter.

On the first play of the second quarter, Ward rolled out to his right and lobbed up a pass. Senior receiver Cole Denniston was the intended receiver, but the Markesan corner would have never known that. The defender was completely lost on the play as Denniston leaped up for an easy Marshall touchdown. A successful 2-point conversion gave Marshall a 14-0 lead with 11:53 remaining in the first half.

Markesan had no answers for Marshall’s defensive line in the first half. Senior Luis Bello and the rest of the Cardinals were living in the Hornets’ backfield. It was a sack from Bello that forced another Markesan punt.

“We saw some things in film that we really, really liked,” Marshall head coach Matt Kleinheinz said of his team’s defensive approach. “We were able to exploit those today.”

Marshall kept up the break-neck pace on offense. The Cardinals wasted no time tacking on more points following the punt as Kleinheinz ordered up a deep passing play. His players delivered. Ward lobbed a pass up the left sideline to senior Canon Siedschlag. It was an underthrown ball, but Siedschlag made a great adjustment and snagged it. The cornerback covering Siedschlag tried to adjust, too, but lost his footing in the process and fell to the ground. Bye-bye, Canon. Siedschlag brought it 55 yards to the endzone to give Marshall a 21-0 lead.

On the ensuing kickoff, Markesan was called for holding. That’s usually not a tremendous mistake, but it is when disaster strikes. Just a few plays into the possession, Markesan coughed up the football. Marshall pounced on the fumble on Markesan’s two yard line, setting up an easy score.

Well, a seemingly easy score. It took three runs up the gut, but Frank managed to punch it in to give Marshall a 27-0 lead with plenty of time left in the first half.

Markesan’s offense finally woke up on the ensuing drive, but it was still a little sleepy. The Hornets continually let the drive reach fourth down, but somehow always found a way. A sweep to the left by junior running back Micah Kracht saved the drive once on fourth down. Then, the Hornets capitalized.

On one of the first passes he had thrown all day, Mast faked a pitch to the left then rolled out to the right. The fake duped almost the entire Marshall defensive line, buying Mast plenty of time to read the field. He fired a strike over the middle to senior Hayden Quade who caught the ball untouched in the endzone. Marshall still led, 27-7, but Markesan was showing signs of life.

Marshall nearly let the game get away from it on the next possession. After a fantastic kick return from Frank, the Cardinals were starting from their own 41. But, a bobbled handoff between Ward and Frank changed all of that. Markesan hopped on the fumble and looked primed to score twice in a row and completely shift the momentum of the game.

Markesan decided to go for the momentum shift right away. The Hornets dialed up a deep pass attempt. Mast let go of a looping, wobbling throw that nestled safely into the outstretched arms of Ward. Crisis, averted.

Considering itself lucky to not have given up an extra score before halftime, Marshall simply kept the ball on the ground and finished out the clock. Marshall entered the half with a 27-7 lead.

The Hornets came out fighting in the second half. Given the opening kickoff, Markesan came out throwing. Unfortunately for them, the passes were wildly inaccurate and it forced a quick punt. But, the Hornets weren’t done fighting.

It didn’t take long for Markesan to get the ball back as they snagged an interception off of Ward. The intensity kept up for the Hornets as they faced fourth down on that same possession. Lined up in a punt formation, the longsnapper fired a direct snap to the upback, who rolled to his right and pitched the ball to the punter. It was close, but the Hornets gained the necessary yardage to keep the drive alive.

Again facing fourth down, the Hornets dug deep. Mast ran a QB counter which was blocked to perfection by his offensive line and backs. He was nearly dragged down by Ward but managed to stretch the ball out for the score. Markesan now only trailed 14-27 with 4:40 remaining in the third quarter.

With the game suddenly up for grabs, the Cardinals needed a steadying hand. Of course, it came from last season’s Eastern Suburban Conference player of the year; Bryce Frank. With the drive seemingly stalling, Frank took a pitch to the right but planted his foot and cut right up the middle. Countless Hornets fell to the grass as Frank juked and weaved his way through the opposition. He carried the ball down to the Markesan 18 yard line before he was pushed out of bounds.

The very next play, Marshall padded its lead. Ward connected with Siedschlag again. Siedschlag showed off his impressive acceleration on the play, creating some room between himself and the corner on his go route as Ward dropped a perfect pass into his hands. Marshall now had a 33-14 lead with about three minutes left in the third quarter.

After another fantastic possession from the Marshall defense, the Cardinals took over via punt with some time to kill. Myriad penalties backed Marshall all the way up to its own two yard line but also served as a great way to burn out the clock without running a play. The third quarter came to a close with a 33-14 Marshall lead.

Naturally, facing 1st and 32 was too much for the Marshall offense to overcome to start the fourth quarter. The Cardinals came close but couldn’t convert, sending off another punt.

Markesan looked primed to narrow the score again. The Hornets were driving, with a little help from Bello after he committed his second personal foul of the game to gift them 15 free yards. With Markesan knocking on the door of the endzone, Marshall answered the call.

From the one yard line, Marshall made a stand. First, on third down, junior Taylor Michalak made the best tackle of the entire game. He wrapped up the Markesan running back and single-handedly dragged him backwards, preventing the score. The next play, Marshall stepped up again. The entire defensive line pushed Markesan’s offensive line backwards, stopping the running back dead in his tracks and giving the ball back to the Marshall offense.

Again in unfavorable field position, the Cardinals struggled to get the ball moving and fired off a quick punt. This time, Markesan wouldn’t let another good scoring opportunity slip.

A solid punt return brought the ball up to the Marshall 22 yard line for Markesan. Almost immediately, the Hornets struck. Mast connected with Quade again in the endzone for a touchdown. After a successful 2-point conversion, Marshall’s lead was down to 33-22 with just under five minutes to play.

To make matters worse, Markesan recovered the onside kick. On the ensuing drive, the Hornets pulled all of their tricks, running a hook-and-ladder to amass the most yards possible. Bello put a stop to this with a huge sack on third down. Now, Markesan was looking at a field goal attempt from the Marshall 17 yard line.

We’ll never know if Markesan’s kicker had the leg to nail that kick. Marshall’s kick block squad did its job, jumping in front of the kick and blocking it. From there, it was game over. Frank picked up one last first down to ice it.

“Huge credit to our kids,” Kleinheinz said. “They really dug deep, especially in that second half. I’m super proud of our seniors. Craig and Bryce really stepped up today. Canon and Cole did a nice job on the edges. The line did just enough to give us the time we needed. Markesan has a really potent offense and for our defense to hold them to three scores, that’s a heck of an effort.”

Following the game, Marshall High School principal Eugene Syvrud presented the Cardinals with their hard-earned trophy. The mood in the post-game huddle was an inspiring one. Instead of focusing on the celebration, it was obvious Kleinheinz and his boys had their eyes on bigger goals: the playoffs.

Marshall’s class of 2022 football players has never won a playoff game. After an undefeated regular season and a conference crown, there’s reason to believe that will change this season.

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