St. Michael-Albertville coach Jared Essler hadn’t brought it up all season. But he’s quite certain his players remembered.
One year ago, the Knights were on the losing end of a miraculous comeback by Maple Grove, which scored three touchdowns in the final 59 seconds to pull out a victory in the Class 6A quarterfinals.
On Friday, St. Michael-Albertville received some much-needed karma. The Knights found themselves trailing Edina 28-0 midway through the fourth quarter. Believing a rally was possible would have been difficult had 2017’s heartbreaker not happened.
“I know all of our seniors certainly remembered it,” Essler said Sunday. “We hadn’t talked about it all year. But it was in the backs of our kids’ minds.”
The Knights made the possibility a reality, scoring 29 consecutive points in a five-minute span to defeat the Hornets 29-28 and advance to the Class 6A state tournament.
At one point in the game, Essler wasn’t sure his team had the spunk to come back.
“I thought our kids' body language and competitiveness wasn’t good in the third quarter,” he admitted. “We needed some momentum.”
That came on a four-yard run by Desean Phillips with 6:32 left in the fourth quarter that put St. Michael-Albertville on the board. They followed by pulling off three consecutive successful onside kicks, getting their go-ahead touchdown on a 1-yard dive by Phillips with 1:31 left to play.
“The funny part is we saw on film that when Edina played Farmington [in the first round of the 6A playoffs], Farmington was successful on three straight onside kicks,” Essler said. “Edina had been running away with it but they struggled putting the game away. That popped into my head.''
Phillip’s first touchdown lit a spark. The second fanned the flames. By the time the Knights were pouncing on their second onside kick, Essler was convinced his team had a shot.
“Once we got that kick, I knew it would get really interesting,” he said. “And if we scored then, I had it in my head to go for two. And we did. We got the two-pointer by about three inches. I felt like we needed to keep the momentum, keep up the pressure.”
By then, the St. Michael-Albertville coach knew his team would come out on top.
“It wasn’t ‘Okay, we’ve got a shot’” he said. “I knew we were going to win. We had so much momentum on our side.”
While a comeback the magnitude of Friday’s is rare, Essler said he never felt as if the Knights were overmatched, despite the large deficit.
“Based on our performance, it didn’t feel like a 28-0 game,” he said. “It was pretty evenly matched. Considering time of possession, total yards and how competitive it was, it should have been 14-14.”
While Phillips scored three touchdowns and quarterback Jared Duda went nine for 12 passing in the fourth quarter, Essler singled out receiver Brandon Langdok as the hero of the rally.
“He recovered the first two onside kicks and scored a touchdown,” Essler said. “He caught a bunch of big passes, including one on third-and-20 for 22 yards.''
The Knights’ reward for their amazing comeback? A date with undefeated Lakeville North on Friday at TCO Performance Center, the Vikings’ training facility. Keeping his team’s eyes looking forward and putting the victory behind them is the task at hand.
“I’m probably going to tell the story of the ‘Minneapolis Miracle,’” Essler said. “The Vikings won a game that they probably shouldn’t have won and the next week, they didn’t play that well.”
It didn’t stop him from savoring the result, however.
“I’ve got a couple guys on the staff who have coached for a long time and they said they’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “We’ve got another week to practice together. It’s a chance to build on this excitement.”