High School Football: A balance attack leads Verndale to victory in semifinals

Verndale's Zak Olsson catches a pass during a game against Wheaton Friday, Nov. 20, at Mahlen Field in Verndale. Kelly Humphrey / Brainerd Dispatch

VERNDALE — On first and 10 from Verndale’s 34-yard line, Pirates’ defensive end Brandon Greenwaldt knew what play might be coming from the Wheaton/Herman-Norcross Warriors.

“This week we were watching film hard and we knew they liked to run that running back out for a quick screen,” Greenwaldt said. “We were practicing to get out there this week so I can pick it off.”

Sure enough, Warriors’ quarterback Zach Braaton dropped back to pass and looked to throw a swing pass to Grant Dawson.

Greenwaldt leaped to intercept it at the line of scrimmage and take it 66 yards for a touchdown.

“I thought I was going to get ran down,” Greenwaldt said. “I’m the slowest one out here.”


The pick-six put the Pirates up 22-0 going into halftime and was the momentum builder needed for Verndale to beat the Warriors 38-16 in the Section 4 9-man semifinals Friday, Nov. 20.

“We played hard all night,” Verndale head coach Mike Mahlen said. “I thought the kids did a great job all night. Wheaton is a good team and they are physical. Our line did a good job of holding up and we ran the ball and threw the ball well tonight.”

Verndale Football vs Wheaton Gallery

Verndale accumulated 475 yards of total offense with 244 of it on the ground and 231 of it through the air.

“We had some key completions in some key situations tonight,” Mahlen said. “I wish we could keep playing, but it is what it is.”

The Pirates scored the first 30 points of the game to set the tone.

Hunter Schulke put Verndale on the board first with a 10-yard run in the first quarter. He found the end zone again in the second quarter from 2 yards out and after a trick play two-point conversion the Pirates led 14-0.

“We were really pounding the ball with the run game,” Verndale quarterback Dilan Orlando said. “That helped set up the pass.”


Verndale rode the momentum of the pick-six into halftime and with its first drive of the second half compiled a 9-play, 67-yard touchdown drive capped off by a 27-yard pass from Dilan Orlando to Zak Olsson on fourth and 15.

“We really put the work in all summer and offseason,” Orlando said of his relationship with Olsson. “We don’t even need to open our eyes to do it with our chemistry.”

Olsson finished the game with nine catches for 110 yards and Orlando threw with 15-for-25 and 231 yards and no interceptions.

“Zak Olsson has been our go-to guy all year as far as receiving,” Mahlen said. “He’s done a great job. He’s got the quickness and the speed and Dilan probably threw the ball the best he’s thrown it all year.”

The Warriors did not go away, however, and scored on their next two drives to make it 30-16.

The second touchdown came on a 68-yard catch and run by Dawson from Braaten. Dawson finished the game with 175 yards receiving and two touchdowns for the Warriors.


Verndale responded with a touchdown drive of its own to start the fourth quarter. Gideon Ervasti plunged into the end zone from 2 yards out, as Verndale milked the clock in its next drive to win.

Ervasti led Verndale in rushing with 163 yards on 25 carries, while Schulke ran for 66 yards on 20 carries.

“We’ve been missing Gideon all year,” Mahlen said. “He was our leading rusher in the first two games and then he got hurt. He does such a good job of blocking as fullback, too, you don’t see that, but when he plays fullback he does a heck of a job blocking.”

The defense played a big role in Verndale’s win besides the pick-six. The Pirates stopped the Warriors on a fourth down in the red zone and tallied another interception in the first half.

“They played very well,” Mahlen said. “(Wheaton) got a couple scores on a couple of big plays, but it wasn’t due to a lack of effort. We stopped them two or three times when they were knocking on the door.”

Verndale finishes its season 7-1 with its lone loss being to Hancock. The Pirates would have most likely played Hancock in the Section 4 9-man finals if not for the Minnesota shutdowns announced last week.

Nevertheless, Mahlen is grateful for the season they did have.

“All year long I was harping on the kids to wear their masks in the locker room, dressing and undressing, I harped on them a lot and the kids did everything we asked them to do,” Mahlen said.


Wheaton 0 0 16 0 — 16
Verndale 6 16 8 8 — 38

First quarter
V-Hunter Schulke 10 run (run failed) 3:53

Second quarter
V-Schulke 2 run (Dilan Orlando pass from Gideon Ervasti) 7:01
V-Brandon Greenwaldt 66 interception return (Jaden Finck pass from Orlando) 6:03


Third quarter
V-Zak Olsson 27 pass from Orlando (Greenwaldt pass from Orlando) 8:09
WHN-Grant Dawson 3 pass from Zach Braaten (Connor Zych pass from Braaten) 6:01
WHN-Dawson 68 pass from Braaten (Gunner Martinek run) 2:24

Fourth quarter
V-Ervasti 4 run (Ervasti run) 9:24

Team statistics
Rushes-yards: V 50-244, WHN 14-72
Pass comp-att-int-yds: V 15-25-0-231, WHN 19-36-2-277
Total offense: V 75-475, WHN 50-349

Individual leaders
Rushing: V-Gideon Ervasti 25-163, Hunter Schulke 20-66, Jaden Finck 2-16, Matt Mensinger 1-2, Dilan Orlando 2-(-3); WHN-Zach Braaten 5-43, Gunner Martinek 8-23, Jarred Ehlers 1-6
Passing: V-Dilan Orlando 15-25-231; WHN-Zach Braaten 19-36-277
Receiving: V-Zak Olsson 9-110, Hunter Schulke 2-43, Gideon Ervasti 2-43, Matt Mensinger 1-24, Jaden Finck 1-11; WHN-Grant Dawson 8-175, Connor Zych 5-53, Hunter Blume 2-27, Ethan Nachbor 2-21, Jarred Ehlers 1-1, Gunner Martinek 1-0.

Verndale 38, Wheaton/Herman-Norcorss 16


Key: Verndale scored the game’s first 30 points to cruise to victory.

Overall: V 7-1, WHN 4-4.

CONRAD ENGSTROM may be reached at 218-855-5861 or Follow on Twitter at

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