Started ugly, ended pretty

Ryan Nielsen’s first start at quarterback couldn’t have started much worse.

But it couldn’t have ended much better.

After opening the season with a turnover, the Williams County senior heaved a game-winning, 15-yard touchdown pass to junior Bailey Branesky late in the fourth quarter of the Firestorm’s 16-12 win over Stanley-Powers Lake on Tuesday at Herb Parker Stadium.

“They were coming with blitz up the middle so I knew I’d have the outside open so I could run it or throw it,” said Nielsen, who rushed for 136 yards on 27 carries. “I saw my wide receiver had some space up there so I just put it up there and let him make a play.”

Nielsen’s throw capped an 80-yard drive that spanned 4 minutes and 54 seconds.

Nielsen ducked into the end zone for the 2-point conversion to put Williams County (1-0) up by four.

The Blue Jays (0-1) had 1:08 to work with and took over at their own 35.

Stanley-Powers Lake quarterback Levi Hoiby connected on a 40-yard bomb to Curtis Marden to reach the 25-yard line. But three of his next four throws hit the turf, including an incomplete pass intended for Marden on fourth-and-8 that returned possession to the Firestorm with 4 seconds left.

Nielsen applauded his defense.

“I thought our defense did very well,” Nielsen said. “We stopped Levi Hoiby, we knew he was going to be trouble. We gave him a few big plays, but our No. 1 problem was us shooting ourself in the foot, especially in the first half.”

Both teams displayed first-game jitters as each squad’s first play resulted in turnovers – both on fumbles.

Stanley-Powers Lake recorded three turnovers, which coach Kody Anderson said was “far too many.”

“It was hard for us to establish a drive,” he said. “We’d get a good gain and then we’d have a penalty or a fumble, things like that. It was hard to get any flow to the game offensively.”

The Blue Jays opened the scoring with a 72-yard pass from Hoiby to Marden to lead 6-0.

Branesky rattled off a 60-yard run on the first play of Williams County’s next drive and Nielsen ran in from 4 yards out the next play before tossing to Kyle Syverson for the 2-point conversion.

Marden returned the Firestorm’s kickoff 76 yards to put Stanley-Powers Lake on top 12-8 after two quarters.

Williams County coach Tim Schaffer preached ball control at halftime and his team responded, yielding no turnovers the rest of the game.

“The biggest thing I told our running backs is we put the ball on the turf too much in the first half,” he said. “That makes me look pretty bad as running backs coach, too. The second half we hung on to the ball and that was the difference in the game. We didn’t kill ourselves with turnovers.”

After a scoreless third quarter, the Firestorm held off Stanley-Powers Lake’s first drive and then drove 80 yards for the winning score.

On third-and-15, Nielsen rolled left to escape pressure and found a leaping Branesky at the 3-yard line. Branesky dipped his shoulder and crossed the plane.

‘Their kid just made the play and ours didn’t,” Anderson said. “It was anyone’s ballgame right there.”

Ryan Holmgren covers high school sports and general assignment. Follow him on Twitter @ryanholmgrenMDN.