Former St. Paul Johnson football standout Ray Hitchcock remembers his alma mater's 1981 state tournament quarterfinal as a game the Governors were in danger of starting shorthanded.
One busload of players missed the turn on Crosstown Hwy. 62 and reached Edina High School about 10 minutes before kickoff. No matter. The visitors overcame the travel hiccup by manhandling the No. 1-ranked Hornets in an 18-13 upset.
"All of a sudden Edina realized they were in a fistfight," said Hitchcock, who later starred as a Gophers' offensive lineman and played for the Washington Redskins.
For the first time since 1981, Johnson returns to the state tournament Thursday and players are poised to make their own lasting memories. Similar goals are on players' minds at Tartan, a football state tournament qualifier for the first time since the Oakdale-based school opened in 1971.
The programs of the two schools, just 6 miles apart in the east metro, are led by second-year coaches who get the most out of their players through good mottos and better football acumen.
Before Johnson's section final vs. South St. Paul last Friday, coach Eric Moberg's urged players to "put it on the wall,'' a nod to the date "10/10/02,'' inscribed on a wall in the school's weight room. That night 16 years ago, Johnson crushed longtime tormentor Cretin-Derham Hall 30-13 in the Raiders' final St. Paul City Conference game before moving to the Suburban East.
Moberg's players got the message, some wearing T-shirts sporting "Put it on the Wall'' under their pads against the Packers. After Johnson's victory, a large group of alumni came onto the field in celebration. Moberg encouraged his kneeling players to look around and realize their success had become a source of pride to a larger community. No St. Paul public school had reached the football state tournament since 1981.
"It's so fantastic," said Moberg, whose Governors (6-4) play St. Anthony (8-2) in a Class 4A quarterfinal at 7 p.m. Thursday at Park Center High School. "I was wearing a Johnson hat at Cub Foods and a random lady started talking football with me. This is something everyone in St. Paul can feel proud of."
Tartan coach Matt Diediker, a social studies teacher at the school since 2009, made sure his players grasped a similar perspective.
"I wanted to teach a history lesson about all the past teams who worked hard, the alumni and the community and how these players are part of that," said Diediker, a Titans assistant coach from 2009-13. "I feel that if we hadn't learned the lesson, we wouldn't be here."
Last season, Tartan reached its first section final in about a decade and fell to Mahtomedi. Diediker offered a bigger challenge at the postseason banquet he called "RTB," red to blue. The inspiration: Section runners-up receive a medal attached to a red ribbon. Winners wear blue.
"We had to change it to R2B because someone else out there has RTB," Diediker said jokingly.
Regardless, it worked. The Titans took home blue ribbons by winning at Mahtomedi. Players jumped up and down yelling "R2B" in the south end zone afterward.
Tartan (8-2) plays St. Thomas Academy (10-0) in a Class 5A quarterfinal at noon Saturday at Shakopee West Junior High. The Titans lean on a core of players who see action both ways much of the game: Antwan Kimmons (receiver, defensive back), Zach Meyer (tight end, linebacker), Tim Oeun (running back, safety), Carter Thuringer (center, nose tackle) and Shaquille Young (guard, defensive tackle).
Johnson has found success with an offensive line of three juniors and two sophomores, quarterback Joey Moberg (Eric's son), running back Daimarion Nelson and linebacker Rance Jones.
"Our kids are fast and aggressive, they hit hard and are fundamentally sound," coach Moberg said. "It's East Side football."