Belle Plaine football coach Justin Johnston remembers his stepdaughter talking about it after school when she was in fifth grade. The seniors on Johnston’s 2015 team were then sixth-graders.
“She’d always tell me that she’d see them playing catch all the time and talking,” Johnston said. “This was a football-first group. Always has been. And they were always telling my stepdaughter that they were going to go to state when they were seniors.”
Quarterback Luke Narveson remembers it a little differently.
“Oh, I think we were saying that for as long as we’ve played football together, probably before then,” he said with a laugh. “We’ve talked about senior year and going to state and maybe winning a state championship for a really long time.”
Six, seven, or eight years later, depending on whose timeline you follow — the Tigers won Class 3A, Section 2 and reached the school’s first state tournament since 1993.
“They’ve put in a lot of hard work, they have a lot of talent, and we’re so happy for them to see it all pay off,” Johnston said.
Belle Plaine (9-2) has 24 seniors on its 48-player roster, and had returned 12 starters (seven on defense, five on offense) from its 2014 team.
There were high expectations this fall, Johnston said, both from coaches and players. And a lot of that stemmed from having Narveson under center for his fourth year as starting quarterback for the Tigers.
“I think we have the best quarterback in the state — a four-year starter, and with his athletic ability and his talent, we knew we’d have a very good team,” Johnston said.
Heading into Saturday’s state quarterfinal game against Tri City United, the 6-foot-4, 205-pound Narveson had amassed nearly 2,000 yards passing and 17 touchdowns, while completing 63 percent of his passes, to go with 13 rushing touchdowns.
“Each year, the game’s slowed down a bit for me,” said Narveson, who is undecided on where he will play in college. “I feel like I’m able to help the team more and more.”
This was the second nine-victory season among Johnston’s 11 years as coach. He’s had a pair of eight-win years and has won seven games multiple times. But in each of the past two years, the Tigers lost in the section title game.
Johnston said his coaching staff was confident that could change this year, but it took much of the season for the team to fully click.
Sophomore running backs Marcus Walsh and Carter Brink combined to rush for more than 1,700 yards in 11 games. Walsh has had 100 or more yards in four consecutive games, starting with a 39-35 victory over Marshall on Oct. 9.
Johnston called the Marshall game the “turning point” for his team. The Tigers had played inconsistent football to that point; Marshall, a Class 4A school, had given up just seven points on the season.
Walsh ran for 124 yards and three touchdowns. Narveson completed 23 of 32 passes for 312 yards, while throwing and running for scores.
“The kids really played their guts out,” Johnston said. “I think they could see what type of football team they could be.”
The team Narveson said he and his friends always envisioned back in grade school.
“It means a lot to us, and a lot of people around here,” he said. “Going through it all with these guys, all the team buses, the locker rooms, it’s something you’ll never forget.”