Put your head down and shovel.
Apple Valley football coach Chad Clendening uses the phrase to remind players about handling the task in front of them. To block out things beyond their control, like being one of only two Class 5A programs forced to play a regular-season schedule of entirely 6A competition.
Stung by losses to Rosemount, Farmington and Burnsville — three top 6A programs — the Eagles kept digging. The reward came Wednesday as Apple Valley routed Henry Sibley 31-7 in the Class 5A, Section 3 quarterfinals.
Senior Kieran McKeag fueled the victory. He scored the Eagles' first three touchdowns, one on a pass from Noah Sanders and two rushing.
"I might get the three touchdowns but the guys up front do it all," McKeag said.
Well, not quite everything. McKeag, a 6-1, 235-pound athlete, seemed to bounce off each member of the Henry Sibley defense during a 13-yard score in the third quarter. Not bad for a player primarily valued for his blocking this season.
Like McKeag, Apple Valley is showing its full range of talents in the postseason. Coming into the playoffs as the No. 3 seed with three victories, the Eagles (4-5) advanced to play at 7 p.m. Tuesday at No. 2 seed Park of Cottage Grove (6-2).
"When 5A comes around and we've played nothing but 6A teams during the season, it's a good momentum-carrier into the postseason," McKeag said. "We know what we can do and who we've played."
Sanders started the first two games but went down because of a knee injury against Rosemount. He returned last week against Eagan, throwing for 177 yards and one TD.
He threw two touchdown passes Wednesday. The second, a 39-yard connection with Isaiah Hall on fourth down, gave the Eagles a 28-0 lead in the third quarter. No. 6 seed Henry Sibley (1-8) scored with 3 minutes, 45 seconds left in the game.
For Clendening, playoff success is a byproduct of the players' willingness to pick up the shovel each week.
"We all know what we're up against," he said. "But the key to it for us is if we're not broken mentally, we can compete with anybody."