It took all of one week for Woodbury’s lofty expectations and state tournament dreams to splutter like a deflating balloon.
The ultra-talented Royals rolled out a dud in their season-opening 23-8 loss to Eastview, starting a swoon that lasted three games before they were able to locate the team they were supposed to be.
“We made the mistake of thinking we’d be up at the top right away,” Woodbury coach Andy Hill said. “It’s a journey, and there are steps that need to be taken every day.”
The Woodbury story is not uncommon and highlights the importance of the high school football playoff system. The Class 6A playoffs kick off Friday night, with all 32 teams in action, each harboring its own view of glory.
Teams that have struggled simply want to finish on a high note, others to play one more day. And for many, the idea of getting a game or two in U.S. Bank Stadium, where the state semifinals and Prep Bowl will be held, is a constant source of motivation.
“That’s the goal,” Chanhassen quarterback Alex Spillum said. “To play in the new Vikings stadium.”
The playoffs are the second season, the time of reprieve, the chance to wipe the regular-season slate clean and start fresh. Previous losses and disappointments fade with the hope of better things ahead.
“The beauty of the playoffs is that the negative can be swept to the back of the closet,” Edina coach Reed Boltmann said. “It doesn’t matter what you’ve done before, you have another chance.”
The playoffs also can be a time of lopsided scores and painful beatdowns, particularly in the early rounds. The Minnesota State High School League has looked at changes to the format, such as limiting the number of entrants and replacing the playoffs with a guaranteed game against another non-qualifier. But such changes have little support. Most coaches and players prefer to hang on to even the smallest sliver of hope, no matter the odds against it.
“There are a lot of teams that believe they can still win it,” Prior Lake coach Matt Gegenheimer said. “Like ourselves. We think there’s not a reason we can’t be in the conversation at the end of the year.”
Loaded with experienced skill players led by quarterback Brock Boltmann (Reed’s son) and a big-but-raw offensive line, Edina was one of a handful of teams believed ready to make a serious run to the Class 6A title. But injuries and a slew of untimely mistakes resulted in a 4-4 regular-season record. Edina earned the No. 3 seed in Section 6 and will host Eastview in the first round. If Edina wins, it would likely get a rematch with Maple Grove, a 6-2 team it defeated 21-20 in Week 3.
After that, who knows? Edina offensive coordinator and assistant head coach Derrin Lamker was the coach at Osseo last year when the Orioles, who lost three times during the regular season, went on an unexpected run to the state championship. Boltmann said Lamker’s voice could prove vital if the Hornets are to be successful.
“Nobody gave them a chance, but they went out and found a way to win,” Boltmann said. “Were they the most talented team? No, but they had players who stepped up when it counted. It’s not always the best team that wins, it’s the team that plays the best.”
Woodbury plays at Prior Lake, another team that mixed moments of brilliance with episodes of ragged play. Both teams are 4-4 and hope a victory Friday will be a catalyst to a lengthy postseason run.
Gegenheimer sees the Lakers’ record not as an underachievement but as the battle scar from a rugged schedule.
“Our district is so tough that 4-4 is a competitive record,” he said. “It’s a grind, but playing that type of schedule every week prepares us for success.”
But now, every game is potentially a one-and-done affair. Lose and it’s time to dig out the winter gear.
That doesn’t bother Hill. The Royals have been approaching the season in that manner since their losing streak.
“Our mantra since then has been to go 1-0 this week,” he said. “That won’t change. We still just want to go 1-0. But if we don’t, we don’t get to try again.”