Elk River coach Steve Hamilton stood barking out plays in the madness that is the Elks’ deceptive wing-T offense.
“Forty-one Tiger Switch” is the call. The players respond, altering a blocking scheme with little guidance. A tweak here, an adjustment there, but for the most part, what looks like chaos — players going in opposite directions, the quarterback faking to each one, linemen criss-crossing — is a well-choreographed dance that often results in big plays.
Most of the time, the coaches stand, observing, and applaud the Elks for a job well done.
“The thing that makes this group special is how smart they are,” said Hamilton, calmly watching his team execute its plays. “We have 17 seniors with a GPA of 3.8 or higher. They figure out what they need to do on their own. We’ve got our numbers on our helmets. I’ve joked that we should change that to their class rank.”
The Elks have used their brains as well as their brawn to lay waste to Class 5A so far this season. They’ve won five consecutive games in a way that leaves no doubt about their No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press state polls. They’ve outscored their opponents 225-34, with 21 of those points against scored by Buffalo last week when the game was already well in hand. Among their victories is a 43-6 annihilation of defending state champion St. Michael-Albertville in Week 4.
The groundwork of Elk River’s success has been its reliance on an old-school offense presented in new school ways. For most football teams, the wing-T went out of fashion with leather helmets. But since Hamilton installed it with its sleight-of-hand fakery six seasons ago, the Elks have gone from also-ran to worthy foe, posting a 32-24 record in one of the state’s most competitive sections. Defenses spend hours preparing for Elk River’s style and still come away shaking their heads, wondering how the ball carrier ended up in the end zone.
“I love it when I see that look of confusion in the other team’s eyes,” running back/linebacker Sam Gibas said. “When you play us, you had better stick to your assignments.”
For an offense that throws the ball about as often as it snows in the Sahara, Elk River is remarkably entertaining. The Elks have rushed for nearly 1.5 miles — 2,309 yards in five games, averaging 461.9 yards on the ground. Fourteen of their 36 touchdowns have been on runs of 20 or more yards.
“That’s a great feeling, looking up and seeing one of our guys running into the end zone,” senior offensive lineman Connor Bryan said. “You know you’ve done your job.”
What makes the 2016 version of the Elks stand out has been their defense. In past years, a lack of depth and the offense’s ability to score quickly wore down the defense. This group takes just as much pride in stopping the other guy as it does running over him.
“This years, we have the kind of depth we haven’t had before,” Hamilton said. “We still have a couple of guys who play both ways, but not all the time. We stay fresher.”
The Elks’ newfound defensive prowess was on display in their rout of St. Michael-Albertville, considered their signature victory of this season. They didn’t give up a point in the first quarter. When the then-No. 1 Knights did score, it was on a fake punt. It was then, said junior offensive lineman Ronald Audette, that he knew this season had the chance to be special.
“St. Michael took us out [of the section playoffs] two years in a row,” said the 6-3, 310-pound Audette, the Elks’ lone Division I recruit. “The whole community didn’t think we could beat them. They didn’t have any hope in us until we beat them. Once we did, they jumped on our backs and everyone is excited to keep going.”
Hamilton is not surprised. He saw the potential in this team when the players were in youth football.
“I’ve never seen a group of guys who love football as much as these guys do,” he said. “That’s probably because they’re smart. They don’t have to be told when to work hard or what to do. They’re so unselfish and just want to win.”
And, of course, few things are as enjoyable as winning.
“I’ve never had as much fun playing football,” Gibas said.