The Eagles, with memories of last year's playoff loss, face a fellow unbeaten team.
If it's true that more is learned from defeat than victory, then the Totino-Grace football players became scholars Nov. 18, 2011.
That day, the Eagles, having moved up into what was then the state's largest class of football, were routed by Eden Prairie 49-7 in the Class 5A state semifinals.
And frankly, the game wasn't even that close.
"They whipped us," Totino-Grace coach Jeff Ferguson said. "They were more talented than us and they were hungrier than we were. That's a bad combination."
The loss shook one of the state's most successful programs to its core.
"That was the worst feeling ever," linebacker Kurt Mattox said. "That was not resemblant of our team."
There was no moping, however. No denial. From the coaches through the players, the Eagles took stock of their situation and found plenty of room to improve this season.
Totino-Grace joined the Northwest Suburban Conference, going undefeated through a tough schedule full of schools with considerably bigger enrollments. It knocked off Edina, which has since become the top-ranked team in Class 6A.
Coach Derrin Lamker, whose Class 6A Osseo team lost to the Eagles, calls Totino-Grace "the best team in the state, bar none.''
The Eagles (9-0) are hosts of a section championship game Friday against Spring Lake Park (9-0) with a Class 5A state tournament berth on the line and last season a distant but unforgotten memory.
"That loss hurt so bad, we never wanted to feel that way again," senior defensive end Nick Dorsey said. "We use the word hunger a lot in our program. That just fed into it. We want to make amends for what happened last year."
When the Minnesota State High School League grouped the 32 largest schools in the state into newly formed Class 6A, Totino-Grace stayed in Class 5A. The school has an enrollment of about 800 students. In its new conference, home to the largest high schools in the north metro, the next smallest is Park Center, with almost 1,500 students.
"We feel like we should win every time we step on the field, no matter who we're playing," Mattox said. "It you don't feel that way, than you shouldn't be playing for Totino-Grace."
The Eagles won four Class 4A state titles in five years before last season. But Totino-Grace has detractors who wonder why a program that has achieved so much isn't trying to play at the top level.
Ferguson said he understands "the validity of the question, but I don't know how many people want to accept the validity of the answer. We overachieve. It isn't like we have D-I kids running around all over the place. We worked harder on developing our culture of love and respect and hard work than we do on X's and O's. What we get here is great kids."
Ferguson stops short of calling the Eagles, even with their accomplishments, the state's best this season.
"But one thing we will do is compete,'' he said. "I'll never take it for granted that we ask our kids to do something and they don't blink, they just do it. Not every coach is lucky enough to have kids like that."
Players reciprocate that appreciation in the form of victories.
"All of the players on this team feel that we have the best coaches in the state," Mattox said. "We know if we do our jobs the way they tell us, no team is going to be able to take us down."
|Minnesota - WP: C. Thielbar||7||FINAL|
|NY Yankees - LP: M. Banuelos||3|
|Stephen F Austin||85|
|Sam Houston St||69||FINAL|
|San Diego St||59|
|Utah Valley U||69|
|New Mexico St||69|
|Long Beach State||77|
|(22) Middle Tennessee||64|
|(25) Bowling Green||55|
|New Mexico St||65||FINAL|
|Coll of Charleston||70|