As sophomores in Eden Prairie’s football program, Johnny Heller and some teammates coined the term RT3, as in “Road to three” state championships.
“It was kind of a joke,” said Heller, now a senior linebacker who makes the defensive calls. “Then last year when we won again, it started to get a little more realistic.”
The two-time defending champion Eagles have been superlative in many respects this season, winning every game by margins made less lopsided only by playing reserves and opponents’ meaningless late scores. Longtime coach Mike Grant concedes this might be better than any of his eight previous state championship teams. He already declared bruising running backs Anthony Anderson and Dan Fisher as the program’s best-ever tandem.
“At this point we’ve got to get it done,” Heller said. “There’s really no good way to end this season without a state championship.”
History is on the line with Friday’s Class 6A Prep Bowl game against Rosemount. A victories solidifies Eden Prairie as the ultimate dynasty in the ultimate team sport. No school has won three consecutive state football titles in the largest class.
In its way stands a one-time conference rival with only one loss, in overtime in its first game. Rosemount boasts a dynamic offense and a fast, physical defense but comes in as the clear underdog. The Irish also hold sentimental favorite status, if only for a wider disdain of Eden Prairie’s repeated success.
A bit of tension exists between the two programs as well.
In 2009 Rosemount was locked out of Eden Prairie’s air-conditioned buildings before and after a game on a hot evening. One year later, the Irish and eight additional schools left Eden Prairie in the Lake Conference and founded the South Suburban. Grant’s assessment served as a parting shot: “I think Rosemount pushed it hard, especially to get rid of us. Rosemount never wants to play us.”
Recently asked, neither Grant nor Rosemount coach Jeff Erdmann addressed past grievances. Erdmann grinned and said, “That stuff is not coming from here.”
Fans are less diplomatic. In the days after Eden Prairie’s 47-22 semifinal demolition of last year’s Class 5A champion Totino-Grace, online message boards teemed with debate. Eden Prairie’s detractors said success should be a given at a school with a gigantic enrollment and location in an affluent community. Supporters saluted Eden Prairie’s hard-working players and dedicated coaches for their unrivaled will to succeed. Both arguments have merit.
“A lot of people will say it’s because of our [enrollment] size,” Heller said. “That is definitely a part of it. But we’re in the weight room every day because we’ve got 100 kids on the team and if you’re not working, you’re not going to play.”
Elements of the program’s pluck and luck are found in Ryan Connelly’s journey from backup quarterback to defensive end to starter under center. Grant and the coaches discussed trying a player with the first name Connor at defensive end last year. The defensive line coach mistakenly heard Connelly.
“So we come out to practice and I ask, ‘Where did Connelly go?’ ” Grant said. “I find out he’s with the defensive ends so I walk over there and the coach says, ‘He’s our best one right now.’ And he only worked with him about 10 minutes. So we left him.”
Connelly, the starting quarterback this fall, has enjoyed an efficient if understated season in the Eagles’ run-obsessed offense. He has completed 35 of 45 passes (77.8 percent) for 665 yards, 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions. He ran for 337 yards on a 10.2-yards-per-carry average and scored five times.
Anderson (1,222 rushing yards, eight touchdowns) and Fisher (812, 12) command attention. But Grant maintains “people don’t realize how good Connelly is. You put him on a passing team and he’s a first-team all-state kid. He’s that good and he’s that fast.”
When it comes to speed, this Rosemount team has more than any coached by Erdmann since his 1999 arrival. He took the job first offered to Grant, who had already won two state titles at Eden Prairie. Grant had been queried by the school’s athletic director.
Junior quarterback Jackson Erdmann, the coach’s son, triggers a multifaceted attack. Erdmann has thrown for 1,760 yards and 23 touchdowns. Receiver Tyler Hartigan stretches the field, averaging 23.1 yards per catch and six touchdowns.
Fullback Trent Woodcock and running back Tyrek Cross have a combined 733 yards and six touchdowns and embody a physical identity their coach said is crucial.
“We have to be able to run the ball,” said Erdmann, who is 0-9 against the Eagles. “We’re not going to throw for 300 yards against Eden Prairie.”
The catalyst is junior Dimitri Williams. Rosemount’s leader in rushing and receiving also makes plays on special teams, accounting for 1,483 total yards and 25 touchdowns.
Friday’s 7 p.m. game showcases the state’s two best teams. Neither has trailed in a game since the season’s first week. Eden Prairie’s 42-13 average margin of victory is slightly better than Rosemount’s 39-12. The perceived difference in the teams is similar, and the Irish know in which end many observers think they reside.
“People ask, ‘Who are you playing this week?’ We said, ‘Eden Prairie,’ and then it’s like, ‘Oh,’ like we’re automatically going to lose,” Jackson Erdmann said. “We know we have a pretty good shot. But we’ve got to take care of business.”