HOLMEN — The third quarter began just the way the Central High School football team needed it to Friday night at Empire Stadium.
Holmen had charged back from a 14-point deficit to tie the RiverHawks just before halftime of a big MVC game for both teams and had the chance to extend that momentum by receiving the second-half kickoff.
But turnovers have plagued the Vikings all season, and the bugaboo struck again on the first snap of the first drive. Central recovered a fumble at Holmen’s 13-yard line and scored two plays later.
The RiverHawks did a good job of taking advantage of what the Vikings gave them and survived a rain delay of more than an hour late in the third quarter to post a 42-28 victory.
Senior Mason Herlitzke rushed for two touchdowns and threw three touchdown passes as Central (5-2, 3-2) crept to within one victory of assuring itself a WIAA playoff spot and forced the Vikings (2-5, 2-3) into the position of having to win its final two to become a qualifier.
“We go as our week goes, and we had a really good week of practice for this game,” Central coach Mitch Olson said. “Our kids were locked in.
“Holmen is a very physical team, and they are very good at what they do. They present a different challenge, but I was happy with the way we were able to check off the things we had to do against the triple option.”
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The Vikings turned the ball over four times to run their season total to 23, and the RiverHawks followed the first three with touchdowns to make them pay dearly.
Herlitzke rushed 19 times for 123 yards and completed 5 of 10 passes for 128 to help Central win its second straight game. The RiverHawks can become automatic playoff qualifiers if they win at Sparta (3-4, 2-3) next week or beat Logan (2-5, 1-4) at UW-La Crosse on Oct. 15.
Holmen still has remaining games against Logan and West Salem (5-1, 4-1) and has to win both to automatically qualify for the postseason. The Vikings last missed the playoffs in 2008 and could still get in with one more victory, but two would clinch it.
“If I knew (what was causing the turnover issue), I would fix it,” Holmen coach Travis Kowalski said. “We have a very good group of guys and a lot of seniors, so I just don’t know what it is.”
The RiverHawks recovered from a slow start with a burst of Herlitzke in the first quarter. Holmen stopped Central’s first possession on downs — Myles Boayue had two sacks — and took a 7-0 lead on a 60-yard drive that ended with Braedon Graw running 11 yards for the touchdown.
Herlitzke answered immediately by taking Central’s next snap and going 60 yards to the end zone. He ran through contact and broke away from the pack.
“It helped to come back and score right after we got shut down like that,” said Herlitzke, who has passed for 1,103 yards and 15 touchdowns this season. “It gave the offensive line confidence, and they lead us.”
Boston Brindley ended Holmen’s next possession with an interception in the end zone, and that led to a 59-yard touchdown pass from Herlitzke to Jackson Warren. Holmen’s next possession resulted in a fumble that was recovered by Elliott Giese and followed by a 22-yard TD pass from Herlitzke to Porter Pretasky.
Suddenly, the RiverHawks had a 21-7 lead.
Holmen came back to tie the game on drives of 50 and 63 yards — Luke LeClaire scored from the 23 for the first TD and connected with Max LeClaire from 25 yards out for the second with 25.8 seconds on the clock.
But the fumble on the first snap of the third quarter loomed large by the time the game was finished.
“It looked like we were cruising along, and we have the (interception) in the end zone,” Kowalski said. “Then we come back to tie the game at 21, get the ball back and fumble it at the 10-yard line.”
Holmen senior Breken Turner carried 18 times for a game-high 134 yards, and Luke LeClaire added 91 on 15 attempts for the Vikings, but an nasty cramp ended the quarterback’s night early.