In the end, the same recipe that had the Stillwater football team seemingly cruising to an easy victory Friday night helped the Ponies preserve that win after things got interesting later on.
Lots and lots of Eddie O’Keefe.
The senior running back rushed for four touchdowns, then had a pair of crucial carries on a final drive that helped Stillwater hold off a furious White Bear Lake fourth-quarter rally and escape with a 35-28 road victory.
“I feel like everybody on this team has gotten way better over the past few weeks,” said O’Keefe, whose team improved to 5-0 this season.
“But especially our offensive line. They just complement me so well. They’re the ones making things happen.”
In fact, they made a lot of things happen through the first three quarters Friday.
Though the Bears struck first when senior Anthony Lewis-Royal plowed his way into the end zone from 8 yards out with 1:20 to play in the first quarter, it took the Ponies just one play to answer back as O’Keefe scored on a 65-yard run up the middle to tie the score 7-7.
And from there, the rest of the first half belonged to Stillwater.
O’Keefe scored on touchdown runs of 8 and 2 yards in the second quarter, the latter of those coming after a squibbed punt by the Bears gave the Ponies the ball at the White Bear Lake 30. He finished the first half with nine carries for 85 yards, and Stillwater went to the locker room leading 21-7.
“He’s really good,” said Bears coach Ryan Bartlett, whose team fell to 3-2. “He’s able to slide off and bounce. There were a few times tonight where we had a couple of guys there to make plays, and he slid right off.”
O’Keefe scored again, this time on another 8-yard run, to put the Ponies on top 28-7 with 2:10 to play in the third quarter.
But then the momentum shifted.
First, White Bear Lake cut the gap to 28-14 on a 37-yard touchdown catch by junior Rayshaun Brakes with 7:27 to play, then recovered an onside kick at the Stillwater 42. But moments later, Ponies senior Chance Swenson scooped up a fumble at midfield and returned it for a touchdown that put his team in front 35-14.
“I was just doing my job sitting on the edge and waiting for something to roll my way,” Swenson said.
“Then I saw the ball come bouncing out, and it was every defensive player’s dream.”
And yet the Bears didn’t surrender, scoring two more touchdowns – both on catches by senior Alex Lockwood (30 and 5 yards) – to cut the gap to 35-28 with under 2:30 to go.
But when Stillwater got the ball back, O’Keefe rattled off two big runs of over 20 yards for first downs, and the Ponies put the game away.
“They did a lot of things well in that fourth quarter, and we could have done a few things better,” Stillwater coach Beau LaBore said.
“But I told our guys the scoreboard is for numbers. They don’t put pictures or short stories up there. And we did enough well tonight to get the win.”
Thanks, in large part, to the efforts of O’Keefe – who had three touchdowns in a win over Osseo last week and three touchdowns in a victory over Roseville the week before.
“I just tried to concentrate on not fumbling,” he said of his efforts on his team’s final possession. “I knew if I could hold on to the ball, we were going to get out of here with a win, and we could enjoy the bus ride home.
“It’s a really good feeling to be 5-0. But one thing we’ve tried to stress all season is the importance of going 1-0 each week. So we can enjoy this one until Sunday. Then we’re back to being 0-0 again.”