Totino-Grace quarterback AJ LaPanta is playing some of his best football at an emotionally difficult time.
He completed eight of 12 passes for 128 yards and three touchdowns last Saturday in a 23-0 victory over Bemidji in the Class 5A tournament semifinal.
The top-ranked Eagles advance to play Owatonna at 4 p.m. Saturday at the Metrodome for a shot at their seventh state title since 2003.
LaPanta was at his grandfather's Steve side when he died Nov. 9. A few hours later, AJ helped Totino-Grace to a 42-14 quarterfinal victory against Apple Valley.
"The last two weeks have been by far AJ's best games," Totino-Grace coach Jeff Ferguson said. "When a team is bound and determined to stop the run, you've got be able to throw the ball a little bit. He was really lights out against Bemidji. He completed some good passes and some big passes."
Fittingly, two of LaPanta's touchdown passes against Bemidji ended up in Charlie Miller's hands.
"AJ has got a real bond with Charlie," Ferguson said. "They've been friends since they were little boys. They are inseparable. They really are like non-related brothers."
The emergence of LaPanta and the passing game adds a welcome dimension to the Eagles' standbys of running the ball well and playing tough defense. Injuries during the Bemidji game led to personnel shifts that led to six running backs carrying the ball.
Ferguson said his team must be on top of its game against Owatonna, which outlasted St. Thomas Academy in the semifinals and spoiled an anticipated showdown of metro area private school powers. But don't count Ferguson among the surprised to see the Huskies in the final game.
"Owatonna is the best team we've faced -- no fooling," said Ferguson, who coached the Eagles to an early season victory against Edina. The Hornets later rose to the No. 1 team in Class 6A.
Ferguson went on to praise the Huskies' defense as the best his team will face. But Ferguson, the Eagles defensive coordinator, thinks highly of his own guys, too.
"Our defense was outstanding [Saturday]," he said. "We contested everything."