Benilde-St. Margaret’s football coach Jon Hanks proudly wore his 2016 Class 4A championship ring for a good eight months. Now, it’s safely tucked away in a drawer.
On the first official day of practice Monday, one of Hanks’ players noticed it was missing.
“He said, ‘Coach, where’s your ring at?’ ” Hanks said. “I wore it quite a bit because I was pretty proud of that damn thing. I told them I took it off because it’s meaningless now. I told them, ‘This is your football team. We start a whole new chapter of what we’re going to be and what this team is all about.’ ”
After a season in which the Red Knights shocked everyone but themselves en route to the 4A crown, they now get down to the much tougher task of trying to do it again.
History shows that repeating is possible. Grand Meadow has won four consecutive Nine-Man titles. Caledonia has won two in a row in Class 2A. Eden Prairie won four large-school crowns from 2011 through 2014. It’s the intangibles, the breaks that go your way in a championship season, that are so difficult to replicate.
“That was a great group,” Hanks said. “They probably weren’t the best team we’ve had here, but they dug practice. It was easy to coach guys that were always going 90 miles an hour and wanted more.”
The players understand it’s time to look forward, not back.
“Last year, it was great to win it, but we’ve put it in the past,” said Ikenna Ujuagu, a senior running back/linebacker. “You have to be focused on the next mission. Right now, we’re focused on our first game.”
For the Red Knights to repeat, they’ll need adequate replacements for lineman Eric Wilson, an All-Metro two-way lineman now competing at Harvard, and fleet running back Ricky Floyd, whose breakaway ability made opposing coaches jittery.
“Eric was a phenomenal football player. I don’t know how we’re going to replace him,” Hanks said. “And replacing Ricky, who I think was the best running back in the state, is going to be hard. But we’ve got Liam and he’s very excited about running with the football.”
Liam is senior defensive back/running back Liam Ford, who stepped in when Floyd left the Prep Bowl because of a shoulder injury two plays into the game. Ford rushed 18 times for 81 yards and two touchdowns and intercepted two passes in the 31-28 victory over Winona. That performance not only helped lift the Red Knights to their first state championship, it also signaled a level of depth that bodes well for the future.
“The difference this year is expectations,” Ford said. “Now, being state champions, everyone’s going to come gunning for our crown. Our attitude, with the players and the coaching staff, is that we have to do even more if we want to get there again.”
Senior linebacker/offensive lineman Braeden Fitzgerald is a hard-nosed leader from a football family. His father, Joe, was an All-Big Ten linebacker at Indiana in the early ’80s. Two older brothers played for Benilde. The motivation for repeating, he said, is simple.
“Every year, I’d seen my older brothers end the season crying,” he said. “Last year was the only year I did not see that. That’s such a good feeling. You don’t want to go out losing.”
Hanks summed up the Red Knights’ attitude when he talked about the ring now missing from his hand.
“I told them, ‘Fellas, I don’t normally talk about winning, but I kind of want to put another one on,’ ” he said.