When a title contender makes a mid-season acquisition, they are looking for the missing piece to put them over the top. That’s what the Carlstad Crusaders were hoping to find when they signed German-American gamebreaker Niko Lester after his Danish season was canceled, but even in their wildest dreams they couldn’t have imagined the impact that the playmaker would have on their semi-final game.
In a defensive slug fest that required extra time, Lester picked off three passes, including the game-winner in overtime to send Carlstad to the Superserien finals with a 13-7 victory over the Örebro Black Knights. In a game often devoid of offense, the turnovers kept Örebro from breaking loose and enforced a deadlock that took a fifth frame to break.
Carlstad head coach BD Kennedy:
“This guy is gold. He can do so many things. He just tells us to put him in wherever we need him and we did. Not only did he get three interceptions including the game clincher, but he punted, caught passes and ran with the ball. We had a terrific team effort and he embodied it.”
The Black Knights were the first to gain some traction in the much anticipated playoff showdown. After Alf Ransjö dropped the snap on his opening drive punt, Örebro took over in Carlstad’s half and looked to open the scoring. A sliding 24-yard catch by the Black Knights’ own late season addition Mike Gentili set them up in the redzone, but the team was forced to attempt a chip shot field goal. Instead of getting points, Carlstad import Darius Lewis came screaming through the right side for the block and Lester recovered the ball to give fans a preview of the defensive contest in front of them.
Neither offense would generate much momentum until the second quarter. Pinned at their own one-yard line by a Black Knight’s punt, Danny Farley went deep to Kevin Börzsei for 36-yards to get the ball rolling for the Crusaders. The team rode the dual rushing threats of Niko Lester and Emil Knutsson for the rest of the nine play, 99-yard drive before Knutsson made two defenders miss and powered through the rest for a 15-yard touchdown. Örebro responded quickly with a 29-yard completion from Jake Sisson to Jimmy Palmborg, but Niko Lester out jumped Filip Wetterberg to pick off the next deep shot. Unfortunately, the Crusaders couldn’t escape the shadow of their own goal posts and the Black Knights’ special teams made good where their offense couldn’t when Nicolas Knobauch blocked Ransjö’s punt and Percy Bender recovered in the endzone to tie the game at seven at the half.
The second half wouldn’t break the games defensive emphasis. On the second play from scrimmage, Lester ran the route for Wetterberg and hauled in his second interception with a one-handed stab. The Crusaders ground their way into the Örebro redzone but Robin Juhlin came up short on fourth down to set the tone for a fruitless half.
Neither team threatened again until late in the fourth quarter when a 16-yard Emil Knutsson carry set up a Carlstad field goal attempt from 32 yards out. The Black Knights special teams unit stepped up once again however, with a sprawling Jonathan Armendariz getting a finger tip on the David Nyhlen kick to send it fluttering wide left. Johannes Lindeus dropped a potentially game-changing deep ball from Sisson on the next play however and back to back sacks from Mattias Eriksson and Christian Kuylenstjerna forced Orebro to give the Crusaders back the ball with 55 seconds remaining. Darius Lewis returned the punt 23 yards but a late hit out of bounds by Oscar Flo Sundqvist put the ball at the Black Knights’ 22-yard line. That led to a second 32-yard attempt from Nyhlen to give his team the win but the kick went wide and Örebro knelt to send the game to overtime.
The Crusaders finally got their passing offense going again just in time for the extra frame. Danny Farley stood in the pocket and heaved the ball the width of the field to Kevin Börzsei in the back left corner of the endzone. The receiver used a subtle push off and hauled in the 12-yard touchdown pass while falling out of bounds, getting his feet down to give his team the lead. Carlstad’s struggles in the kicking game continued and Nyhlen missed the extra point to give Örebro a chance to win on their first overtime possession. Jake Sisson looked to connect with Filip Wetterberg on the endzone fade but Niko Lester played hero, streaking in from the free safety spot to make a toe-tapping, contested interception. After initial uncertainty, the referees ruled it a catch and the Crusaders swarmed the field as 13-7 victors.
To go with his three interceptions, Lester added nine carries for 42 yards as a change of pace back. Emil Knutsson led Carlstad with 17 carries for 109 yards and a score. Quarterback Danny Farley managed the game by going 17 of 33 passing for 112 yards and the game winning touchdown. Kevin Börzsei caught that pass and two others for 54 yards.
The Black Knights offense was held without points on the day, with Jake Sisson completing 15 of 30 passes for 157 yards and three picks. Veteran Jimmy Palmborg led the receivers with three catches for 49 yards, while Mike Gentili was the favorite target with five catches for 38. The Italian-American running back was kept to negative yardage on the ground however and homegrown Kasper Wedberg wasn’t much better with 10 carries for 31 yards.
Ultimately, it was defense that stole the show for both teams. Linebacker Nicolas Knobauch led Örebro in defeat, racking up ten tackles to go with his crucial blocked punt, and Filip Jönsson was not far behind with eight of his own. Sebastian Nilsson and Måns Svärd added sacks for the Black Knights. On the Crusaders side, Mattias Eriksson had 10.5 tackles and Christian Kuylenstjerna had 7.5 to continue a tremendous season for the tandem. Each had 1.5 sacks and Aslan Zetterberg added another to keep Farley off balance in key moments.
The Crusaders now face a finals rematch with the explosive Stockholm Mean Machines, who they beat just two weeks ago. Proven to be a defensive powerhouse, Carlstad has a week to get their offense kicked into the same gear for what should be an entertaining title bout. The secondary will also need to be sharp against a potent Stockholm aerial attack and given his performance Sunday and capacity to help in both regards, the addition of Niko Lester by Carlstad management might be the best play by any team this year.