Andover football coach Rich Wilkie half-jokingly refers to junior Austin Lorch as a genius. His savvy as a return man gives the claim merit.
Lorch made the biggest of several key special teams plays as Andover, the sixth and lowest seed, routed No. 3 seed and previously undefeated St. Paul Central 30-0 in Tuesday’s Class 5A, Section 4 quarterfinal game in St. Paul.
Andover, (5-4), which lost close games to three of the state’s best teams in Edina, Osseo and Totino-Grace, moves on to play at 1 p.m. Saturday at No. 2 seed and second-ranked Spring Lake Park (8-0).
The Panthers’ coaches scouting the game saw a special teams clinic. Pinned down by a punt to their 1-yard line, the Minutemen later punted from their end zone. Moments later Lorch ran in with the ball and a 50-yard punt return for a touchdown to make it 14-0 in the second quarter.
“It was a great spark,” Wilkie said. “I don’t know if our guys were tight but we were a little conservative and not as emotional. I thought that touchdown loosened us up.”
Lorch’s score marked the first time this season that Andover returned a kick or punt for a touchdown. He said a near-miss against Park Center taught him a good lesson.
“I tried to tiptoe down the sideline but the blockers kind of got pushed into me and I went out of bounds,” Lorch said. “So tonight I cut back and there was a hole.”
While Andover found success at almost every turn, Central (8-1) got mired in misfortune. An attempted fake punt failed as the Minutemen’s best player, Elijah Campbell, slipped and fell untouched.
“That was the story of our night,” Central coach Scott Howell said.
It got worse. A late first half drive deep into Andover territory fizzled as quarterback Felix Taylor Jr. lost his helmet on a play and had to leave the game. A hurried direct snap to running back Gabe Walker ended with an Andover gang tackle inside the 5-yard line as the first half expired.
“Coming away without any points in that situation killed us,” Howell said.
Andover maintained the pressure to start the second half. Dom Zeece made his debut as a kick returner memorable, faking a reverse and taking the kickoff to Central’s 33-yard line.
Despite penalty trouble, Andover took advantage of the short field as Tyler Evans caught a 28-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Connor Wilkie. Running back Derek McLaughlin scored two rushing touchdowns in the game.