A Maple Grove football assistant coach handed safety Jake Engelken a small pack of Darkside Skittles as a reward for a job well done against Minnetonka.
Engelken and the Crimson defense got the last word Friday, turning over Minnetonka on downs to cement a 14-9 victory. Winning the round-of-16 game in Class 6A puts undefeated Maple Grove (10-0) in the state tournament for the first time since 2002.
As for the unusual token of appreciation, Engelken said the defense calls itself "the Darkside." No one recalls when the nickname started, but it has been around since before the first game of the season.
"I guess they just think of themselves as rebels or the enemy," Crimson coach Matt Lombardi said. "Hey, any attitude and swagger on defense is good."
Both were needed throughout the game played at Maple Grove, a rematch of last season when Minnetonka won 17-3 on the Crimson's turf. This time, Maple Grove got the better of a tight, physical first half and led 7-0 at halftime.
Minnetonka cut the led to 7-3 with a third-quarter field goal. The fourth quarter saw the teams trade touchdowns. Isaac Collins, a solid cornerback who has seen action at running back for Maple Grove, took a direct snap and dashed 5 yards for a score to put the Crimson ahead 14-3.
Answering with its lone touchdown drive of the night, Minnetonka cut its deficit to 14-9 with 5:48 to play.
But instead of running out a victory, Maple Grove nearly gave the game away. Running the same play that produced Collins' touchdown, Maple Grove fumbled when Clark Wieneke inadvertently knocked the ball out. That gave Minnetonka possession on the Crimson 44-yard line with 2:18 to go.
"I thought we had new life," Skippers coach Dave Nelson said. "I thought it was meant to be."
Heading back onto the field, Maple Grove linebacker Emmanuel Ehrich had a different thought. A believer all week that his team would defeat Minnetonka, Ehrich refused to let doubt enter his mind.
"No sir, we knew we would get it back," Ehrich said. "We knew our defense would end this game."
Lombardi, architect of three state championship defenses at Wayzata, watched as Tommy Becker, a former Trojans linebacker now serving as the Crimson defensive coordinator, made all the right adjustments.
Turning up the heat with blitzes from the edge, Maple Grove turned over Minnetonka on downs for the third and final time. A moment in the sun for the Darkside.
"I told the defense, 'There is a higher power somewhere that wanted you to close it,' " Lombardi said.