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Redbirds win with McArthur's kick
Times photo: Mark Nesbitt Darlington's Zach Brown (81) and Brandon Heins (62) celebrate a sack in the Redbirds' 23-20 WIAA Division 5 Level 2 playoff win over Stratford Saturday.
DARLINGTON - Darlington junior Zach McArthur had a feeling his field goal try would be perfect the moment it left his foot.

McArthur's 20-yard field goal as time expired gave the Redbirds a thrilling 23-20 win over Stratford in a WIAA Division 5 Level 2 playoff game Saturday.

"It felt really good off my foot," McArthur said. "I had a good feeling about it. I heard the crowd yelling and I looked up and it was good. I was really excited and proud I could be part of a big win."

The Redbirds drove 62 yards in 1 minute, 50 seconds and gave McArthur a chance to kick the game-winning field goal. On the final drive, while trying to stop the clock at the 6-yard line, Darlington senior quarterback Alex Erickson bobbled the snap but was still able to complete an awkward spike with 2 seconds remaining.

"It was amazing," Darlington coach Scott Zywicki said. "He (McArthur) has solidified our kicker position. We have gone through some years without a kicker. Zach has come through in the clutch for us. He has done an excellent job of kicking the ball for us."

Darlington (11-0) advances to the quarterfinals where the Redbirds will host Arcadia (9-2), which beat Pardeeville 27-14 Saturday.

The Level 2 playoff game between Darlington and Stratford featured two teams who have combined for 15 state final appearances and 11 state championships. Stratford has won seven state titles including a run of six straight Division 6 championships that was snapped last year. The Redbirds have won four state titles and are looking to win a fifth.

The Redbirds were clicking on all cylinders early on, scoring on three of their first four drives. On its first possession, Darlington went on a nine-play, 96-yard drive that was capped off by Erickson's 55-yard TD run with 5 minutes, 2 seconds left in the first quarter. The drive was kept alive by Erickson's 17-yard pass to Tommy Notter on third-and-11 from the Redbirds' 31-yard line.

Erickson added a 30-yard TD run and fullback Seth Rowe rumbled 41-yards for a score to give the Redbirds a 20-0 halftime lead. Erickson rushed for 148 yards on 22 carries. He was 7 of 16 passing for 64 yards and one interception. Rowe rushed for 83 yards on 12 carries.

"I was shocked," Zywicki said referring to the Redbirds' hot start. "We played as perfect of a game in the first half as we have all year. I don't even know if they even had 30 yards in the first half. Our defense really shut down their run."

The Redbirds almost blew a 20-0 lead with two turnovers in the second half. Stratford's Mark Marquardt broke loose for a 56-yard TD run at 10:05 in the third quarter. Disaster then struck for the Redbirds when the Tigers recovered a fumbled pitch deep in Redbirds' territory. The Tigers cashed in on the turnover with Jamie Aschebrock scoring on a 15-yard run to slice the Redbirds' lead to 20-14.

"They stacked the line in the second half and basically said Alex was not going to beat them running the ball," Zywicki said. "They dared us to pass."

Stratford senior Austin Shelley had an 11-yard TD run with 3:02 to go in the fourth quarter, but the Tigers missed the extra point and the game was tied at 20.

The Tigers couldn't bottle up the Redbirds' offense the entire second half. Erickson made some plays running on the final drive and he connected on some short passes.

"I don't know why, but the kids responded," Zywicki said.

The Redbirds now are preparing for a Level 3 playoff game against Arcadia.

"It should be a good game," McArthur said. "I think we will need to come ready to play. We will have to work hard in practice this week to keep rolling through the playoffs."