Through it all, Irondale football coach Ben Fuller never doubted. Not through a winless first season, nor through a mere five victories in his first three. Not even when his quarterback, who showed all the trappings of being a potential star, spent the first two years of his career on the bench because of injuries.
Now in his fourth season at the New Brighton school, Fuller always believed he was planting the right seeds, cultivating them properly, bringing the program along in a manner that ensured success.
So far this year, the Knights are reaping what has been sown. They are off to a 2-0 start and ranked No. 7 in the Class 5A state poll. They have done it convincingly, not allowing a point through the first seven-plus quarters of the season before North St. Paul scored a pair of late touchdowns in the fourth quarter of a 35-14 Irondale victory last week.
“We’ve always been confident that we were doing the things we were supposed to be doing,” Fuller said. “The biggest was getting these kids to know we care and buy into the fact that it’s going to pay off if they keep following the plan. They had to believe in things that aren’t necessarily what people on the outside look at.”
What outsiders saw was a program that always had a smattering of talent but was either too raw or too small to compete regularly. In years past, the Knights would be competitive for a quarter, perhaps two, before mistakes and inexperience would doom them.
Last year they started off 0-5, making it 22 losses in Fuller’s first 24 games as coach. But, at the same time, they were building something.
Quarterback Brendan White, a tall, athletic, strong-armed quarterback in the classic sense of the position, was finally healthy and living up to his promise. The rest of the team, many of whom had been varsity regulars since their sophomore years, were developing. The Knights won three out of four games in a late season stretch before falling to Cooper in the second round of the playoffs.
Valuable experience was gained and momentum for 2017 began.
“Our guys got a lot of experience,” Fuller said. “A lot of these guys have 20 starts under their belts.”
Not just guys, either. Talented guys. In addition to White, there’s rugged Tyheem Cobb, a 6-2, 265-pound offensive lineman with a great work ethic; Ronney Trass, nimble and agile on the defensive line despite his 6-5, 290-pound bulk; Ayrias Sears, a quick defensive back/receiver; Parker Freiborg, a hard-nosed ball-carrier with a surprising burst; and Nick Ellingson, a fearless bundle of muscle at defensive back.
“It helps that we’ve had two pretty good classes in a row, with juniors and seniors,” Fuller said. “For the first time since I’ve been here, we can walk out on that field and be as talented, if not more talented, than the other team.”
The summer was spent dedicating themselves to each other and ending the years of losing.
“Everybody came here to get better,” Cobb said. “They weren’t here for themselves. They came for their teammates.”
“This year is the most unified this team has been,” White said.
Expectations were high, but there needed to be a catalyst, something to crank up the ignition. That happened in the first game of the season when Irondale rolled over nearby rival Spring Lake Park — a 2016 Prep Bowl finalist — 35-0. Mention that game to players and smiles creep over their faces.
“That was a huge confidence boost for us to beat them,” said White, a senior. “I don’t think we’ve beaten them in, like, five years.”
Of course, they know two victories do not a season make, nor a program build.
“We all know we can still do better,” Trass said. “That’s what everyone talks about.”
The rest of the schedule sets up well for the Knights, who should be favored in most of their games leading into a season-ending showdown with high-powered Cooper. Until then, the plan is to just keep building a program one piece at a time.
“We’ve found our Lego block,” Cobb said. “Now we just have to keep building that foundation.”
The best part? After years of losing, the Knights are having the time of their lives.
“This is so much fun,” White said. “It’s as much fun as I’ve have in my four years here.”