Story by David La Vaque • david.lavaque@startribune.com | Photo by Carlos Gonzalez • cgonzalez@startribune.com

At the 6:38 mark of his senior highlight video, Edina's Matt Cavanagh looks out of the play that epitomized his prep career.

Rosemount's quarterback pitches the ball left to his running back and receiver Jonathan Mann, who is committed to the Gophers, steps in Cavanagh's path.

Cavanagh, the free safety, spins off Mann's block. But as he begins pursuit of the ball carrier, he's 5 yards behind and seemingly toast. Still, he puts his head down and pumps his arms and legs with renewed vigor.

Some 40 yards later, Cavanagh makes the tackle.

If his coaches loved the relentless effort, Cavanagh said he never heard about it.

"I don't really go to the sidelines to get praise," he said.

Call it an unintended consequence of unusual durability. Cavanagh was a standout running back and free safety for the Hornets, leading the tough Metro West subdistrict in carries and his team in tackles. He also contributed as a placekicker, punter and return man.

A strong will carried him through the battles, the bumps and the bruises on and off the field. An exception student as well, Cavanagh has committed to play football at Harvard. And he is the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year.

"He answered the bell all the time," Hornets coach Derrin Lamker said. "And he never got up and made a big deal about a tackle or a run. He's a dream kid to work with."

At 6-1 and 205 pounds, Cavanagh ran 263 times for 1,389 yards and nine touchdowns. He fumbled once in 10 games. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry for an offense that did not exactly create fear with its passing game.

On defense, Cavanagh finished with 100 tackles, five pass breakups, three forced fumbles and two interceptions.

Unofficial statistics include a couple of ankle sprains. A wrist sprain. General leg soreness. Some cramps. Nothing that stopped Cavanagh, however. He asked coaches to plug him in anywhere. They obliged, and he thrived.

"I love it," he said of the full-time grind. "I miss it when I'm not on the field. I wish I can always be out there making an impact on something."

Becoming a player for all situations took time.

A starting outside linebacker to open his sophomore season, Cavanagh was moved to free safety, a position he never played, halfway through the first game. Opportunities to also play running back, his first love, came halfway through the season.

"Before this season I asked if I was just playing running back or defense and Lamker said, 'You're going both ways all year long,' " Cavanagh said. "I was like, 'All right, let's do it.' I was really excited."

Cavanagh's senior season was the second of two working with Bridgeport Tusler, the Metro Player of the Year in 2012 from Osseo. As a senior, Tusler saw action at running back, slot receiver, cornerback, free safety and return man.

Lamker, who led Osseo to the 2015 Class 6A Prep Bowl title before taking the Edina job, brought in Tusler to coach the running backs.

The high-achieving, multifaceted Tusler and Cavanagh inspired one another.

"He motivated me to not get tired, to just keep grinding through it," Cavanagh said. "One time last year I was cramping and I said, 'I don't know if I can go back in,' and he said, 'We need you out there.' That pushed me to push through the pain."

Tusler said Cavanagh is "so devoted. He makes piercing eye contact all the time. He motivated me to do more as a coach.

"Harvard is perfect for him because he's so determined," Tusler said. "He's a student at life."

Cavanagh said he chose the prestigious Massachusetts university over scholarship offers elsewhere because "Harvard is a place that's going to challenge me on and off the field as well as socially. And I like being challenged like that. I think it makes you a better person."

The praise Cavanagh was too busy to receive during the Sept. 7 game against Rosemount came later from Tulser.

"That's my favorite Matt Cavanagh play," Tusler said. "You work on pursuit in practice every day, and he plays until you make him stop playing."

The only thing Cavanagh didn't do for Edina's offense was its version of the Wildcat formation in which the running back, not the quarterback, takes the center snap.

"We called it Cavy-cat," Cavanagh said. "Lamker named it. We had it in the playbook for two years but we never ran it, unfortunately."