Woodbury started the season with five potential Division I athletes, one already committed to the University of Minnesota. No. 4 in a preseason metro ranking, the talent-stacked Royals came off a 6-3 season in 2015 and were regarded as a consensus favorite to contend for a state championship.
Until, coach Andy Hill said, the team got punched in the mouth.
Last Friday, the Royals lost 23-8 to Eastview, a team that hadn’t won a game since October 2014. Woodbury struggled to contain the Lightning’s ground game and five costly Royals turnovers amounted to them only finding the end zone once.
Though not intentional, Hill said, Woodbury, playing at home, got caught up in the excitement surrounding its program and slightly overlooked its opponent.
“We let some of that sink in,” said Hill, who is entering his sixth season as Royals coach. “We tell our kids here that if you are the second one to realize you are in a fight, then you are probably losing that fight.”
This week Woodbury sought to temper expectations and eagerly search for depth as the Royals prepared for rival Cretin-Derham Hall at the University of St. Thomas on Friday. Woodbury defeated the Raiders 19-14 last season.
Its small, but talented senior class, highlighted the Royals’ preseason narrative. Nathan Bursch, a two-way starter at tight end and defensive end, committed to the Gophers. Jeremiah Codden and Jalen Morrison are on Division I radars. Codden plays receiver and defensive back. Morrison, a fullback and defensive lineman, is attracting college attention as a defensive tackle. Nico Bolden, a receiver and free safety, has 18 Division I offers.
Jake West, who Hill said is the team’s most versatile offensive player, also could play at the collegiate level.
With more than 10 athletes playing both ways at times in Woodbury’s season-opener, the Royals’ lack of depth and overall fatigue became evident.
“We are really working this week to increase our depth,” Hill said. “We will challenge some guys who might have thought they were a year away.”
As Hill and his staff try to mold younger guys into varsity starters, Woodbury continues to lean on its senior class. Bursch, a three-year starter, said last Friday taught him being highly ranked puts a target on a team’s back.
Bursch endured a 2-7 season in 2013 and a 1-8 season in 2014 before playing a major role in Woodbury’s turnaround last season. But switching from the hunters to the hunted means getting its opponent’s best effort each week.
“We need to stay humble and disciplined,” Bursch said. “We learned that quickly last Friday. We thought we were all ready, but it shows how much you really have to be dedicated to being like that.”
The Royals are preparing for a Raiders team seeking revenge from a year ago. Morrison, a senior, said it’s clear nothing is given and the home-opener defeat served as a “gut-check” moment.
In an effort to look ahead to Cretin-Derham Hall, which beat Lakeville South 19-14 in its first games, the Royals held a team meeting, watched film and lifted. The underlining message throughout the weekend was simple: Learn from the loss and move on.
“Maybe we don’t figure this out, then we fold up and turn on each other,” Hill said. “I don’t think that is the group of kids we have, but ultimately we’ll see because we know we are going to be in a dogfight Friday.’’