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Mayo football team provided a season to remember

The Spartans made their first state appearance since 1997, thanks to a dynamic offense and unmatched chemistry.

Mayo football
Mayo's Noah Smith runs against Mahtomedi during Saturday's Class 5A state quarterfinal at Woodbury High School. Alex VandenHouten / Post Bulletin.

Cayden Holcomb tried to tell people all season long: This team was different.

This wasn't like Mayo football teams of the past. With 24 seniors, this one was battle-tested, navigating a pandemic before suffering a heartbreaking loss against rival Owatonna in the Section 1AAAAA championship last season.

But, better yet, this group was just as close off the field as it looked when they played together on it.

"It feels great to make it to state or whatever. It's not about that," Holcomb said. "It's about how we stuck together as a team throughout the whole year and we were always having fun with each other at practice or going out bowling or something like that. Just hanging out like a team, that hasn't happened in a while. So I think that was the main reason for our success."

It led to a magical season for the Spartans -- one that ended on Saturday in the Class AAAAA state quarterfinals with a 42-20 loss to Mahtomedi in what was the first state tournament appearance for Mayo since 1997.

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The Spartans did it behind an offense that averaged 40.3 points and more than 360 yards of total offense per game. The man in charge of it, quarterback Bennett Ellsworth, put up eye-popping numbers. Surrounded by a plethora of weapons, the senior threw for 2,444 yards with 26 touchdowns to just six interceptions, while completing 63% of his passes.

"This was the best year of my life," Ellsworth said. "It was super, super fun. Glad I could represent Mayo."

His favorite target, Cayden Holcomb, delivered big play after big play this season. If they needed to make something happen, odds are it was he who delivered. He finished the season with 1,169 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns on 74 receptions, while also being the team's second leading tackler with 55 total tackles at safety in 11 games. The only time he was held to fewer than 80 yards in a game was against top-ranked Mankato West (43) and with six receptions against Mahtomedi, he finished his high school career with a MSHSL record 201 career receptions. He's the only player in the state of Minnesota to reach the 200 career reception mark.

The younger Holcomb, Carter, averaged close to 18 yards per reception en route to finishing with 823 yards and nine touchdowns. The sophomore also tallied an incredible 28.9 yards per punt return, running one back for a score in addition to a kick return touchdown as well.

Yet, it was senior running back Noah Smith who proved to be exactly what this Mayo team needed. After a track season that saw him medal in two events, Smith burst onto the scene, becoming a true home run hitter. He scored 22 touchdowns on the ground, while rushing for 1,128 yards on just 156 carries. His season was cut a bit short after he suffered a foot injury in the first quarter against Mahtomedi, which was a blow to the Spartans' chances.

"Just unfortunate for him," Donny Holcomb said. "His last game. He had to sit out."

Defensively, the Spartans took their lumps but seemed to always make momentum plays when needed. If they really needed a stop, they got it. Like they did against Owatonna in the Section 1AAAAA title game and even on Saturday, when they stiffened up after halftime by holding the Zephyrs to seven second-half points.

In all, it was the perfect combination for what will be looked back upon as a season to remember.

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"Super proud of them," Donny Holcomb said. "They've put in so much work and time and the impact that they have made is going to last for a long time with the underclassmen."

Alex VandenHouten has been a sports reporter at the Post Bulletin since Sept. 2021. He loves to go hiking, biking, snowshoeing and just simply being outdoors with his wife Olivia. Readers can reach Alex at avandenhouten@postbulletin.com.
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