For years a trip to the Prep Bowl semifinals meant a coveted game in the Metrodome. For the state’s biggest schools, in recent years it also meant a regular appearance by football powerhouse Eden Prairie.
Not this year. Class 6A switched to seeding its 32 schools in NCAA basketball fashion, establishing four top seeds. Two of them — the four-time champion Eagles and Lakeville North — have been dispatched. The resulting final four, which includes top seeds Maple Grove and East Ridge, will play the semifinals outdoors before moving to the new Vikings stadium next season.
While each team has had postseason success, the winner of the championship game on Nov. 13 will hoist the big-school trophy for the first time.
Here’s a closer look at Osseo and Totino-Grace, which play at 7 p.m. Thursday at Minnetonka High School, and Maple Grove and East Ridge, which play at 7 p.m. Friday at Eden Prairie High School.
Osseo: Size to go with skill
There’s no coach in the metro who’s better at motivating his team for a big game than Derrin Lamker. The Orioles are prone to playing to its opponents’ level during the regular season, but they always show well when the stakes are high.
Osseo always has enviable talent at the skill positions, and this group is no different. Senior running back Prince Kruah, one of three key players out with injuries when the Orioles lost three consecutive games at midseason, is undersized (5-9, 170 pounds) but has the speed to get the corner and gets yards after contact.
Kruah is far from the whole show. Damario Armstrong is a two-way playmaker, with 65 catches for almost 1,000 yards and 14 touchdowns. He is also a ballhawk at safety.
But what sets Osseo apart this season from years’ past is size on the lines.
“That’s the difference for us this year,” Lamker said after Osseo defeated No. 1 seed Lakeville North 24-21 in the quarterfinals. “We’re able to dominate at the line and when you can dominate at the line, you have a chance.”
Totino-Grace: Peaking, proud
Looking for a template for near-perfect execution? Watch the second-half video of Totino-Grace’s 27-13 victory over Eden Prairie last Friday. The Eagles’ defense held J.D. Spielman in check by getting backfield penetration, tackling well and not getting out of position.
The offense made every play it needed to make, scoring all of the team’s points after halftime. Blockers dominated the Eden Prairie defensive front. Runners ran hard, with both Gayflor Flomo and Ivan Burlak rushing for more than 100 yards. Quarterback Kyle Halverson was efficient, completing eight of 14 passes for 90 yards and a touchdown. Most importantly, they didn’t turn the ball over after halftime.
Coach Jeff Ferguson has a crack staff and has mastered the art of peaking at the right time. The Eagles have won seven state titles, most recently the 2012 Class 5A championship, and fell one point short of the Class 6A championship last year. Much had been made of Totino-Grace’s status as the smallest school playing in the state’s biggest class; based on enrollment the Eagles would qualify as a Class 4A team. It’s a source of team pride. It’s also a potential weak spot as depth can be an issue at key positions.
Look for Totino-Grace to use the ball-control attack that was so successful against Eden Prairie, in hopes of wearing down the Osseo defense and keeping the Orioles’ speed on the sidelines.
Maple Grove: Tougher now
Converge on the ballcarrier. Make initial hit. Get worst of exchange.
Losing in the state tournament to Eden Prairie last season spoke volumes about Maple Grove’s lack of requisite mental and physical toughness.
“Will Rains was getting 3 or 4 yards after contact, so we knew we had to get in the weight room and get stronger,” Crimson senior Isaac Collins said. “I could tell he had a hurt shoulder but he was still fighting and getting big yards.”
Maple Grove coach Matt Lombardi added: “When it came down to a yard here or there, they would drag us. I told the kids, ‘Champions always get that extra yard.’ ”
Players responded, first through torrid offseason workouts and later by battling throughout a schedule as solid as granite.
“When you play at Eden Prairie, at Wayzata and at Prior Lake, you’ve got to come to play every game,” Collins said. “We’re a mentally tougher team this year.”
Their confidence showed Friday as Maple Grove opened up a 17-0 first quarter lead en route to a 32-14 victory in the quarterfinals against Burnsville.
Collins, a running back, and junior quarterback Brad Davison pace the offense with a combined 38 touchdowns. Two-way lineman Kayode Awosika provides size, strength and skills up front. And defensive back Lukas Burrington has contributed 67 tackles and four interceptions.
DAVID LA VAQUE
East Ridge: Heavy hitters rule
“Call us ‘The Golden Five,’ ” East Ridge senior guard Carter Dowdle said of his offensive linemates.
The moniker works for a Raptors’ unit with an unusual blend of size and athletic ability. Wayzata coach Brad Anderson called them the biggest offensive line he has seen in high school football. The Raptors offense, Stillwater coach Beau LaBore said, possesses the best size/speed combination in Suburban East Conference/East Metro Blue Subdistrict history.
The line features, from left to right, Jack Milbauer (6-4, 207 pounds), Dowdle (6-4, 302), Wesley Sanneman (6-3, 271), Brock Albrecht (6-3, 230) and Lanre Oshadi (6-3, 379).
The 1,389-pound quintet gives the East Ridge run-heavy attack almost a three-quarter ton pickup.
Quarterback Otumos Payemanu and running back Dominik London combined to average 226.3 rushing yards per game and scored 34 touchdowns.
Firing off the ball and knocking defenders down suits the Golden Five.
“I’d say our intensity gets magnified by how much we run,” Sanneman said. “That’s what you have to do, come off the ball hard every time.”
When it comes to extending love, Payemanu, London and fullback Connor Mohs know the way to an offensive lineman’s heart really is through his stomach.
“Every Friday one of them will get us doughnuts and Gatorade before the game,” Oshadi said. “It’s nice to feel appreciated.”
DAVID LA VAQUE