Prior Lake's first offensive play this season started from its own 2-yard line at Shakopee and ended in disaster.
This after coach Matt Gegenheimer, who in 13 seasons elevated the Lakers into a perennial top-10 team through strong defense and a run-heavy offense, went a different direction by hiring Mark Esch as his offensive coordinator in February. Esch's wide-open spread attack won two Prep Bowl titles at Mankato West and Gegenheimer believed such a scheme would mesh with Prior Lake's growing stable of skill players and increase the Lakers' potency.
Summer practices offered promise. So as quarterback Colin O'Connor, his three receivers and veteran running back took the field Thursday evening of last week after Prior Lake received the opening kickoff, players and coaches anticipated success.
Instead, the Sabers got a safety. Lakers running back Spencer Shaver was tackled in the end zone.
"I'm thinking, 'Did that really just happen?' " Gegenheimer said.
The miscue became a footnote in Prior Lake's 41-8 victory. O'Connor effectively ran Esch's spread offense, completing 11 of 23 passes for 69 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 100 yards and two scores on 11 carries.
"We weren't able to settle in on that first series the way you'd like to but after that, things were good," O'Connor said. "I enjoyed the options I had, the offensive line stepped up and everyone played well."
Spread offenses have grown in popularity in the past decade for two reasons: More players throw and catch the football better, and more passing draws more athletes to football. Gegenheimer, who ran the wing-T formation through much of his tenure, brought Esch onboard with those factors in mind.
"For a long time we had football and wrestling kids so the wing-T really fit us," said Gegenheimer, whose Lakers went to state in 2011, 2012, 2014 and last season. "With Mark's offense, I'm hoping the basketball kids will see how much fun it is out here. It's definitely an exciting brand of football."
O'Connor said adopting the spread offense "added a little fire to our offensive approach."
Esch's spread requires a quarterback who excels as either a runner or a passer. O'Connor grew up playing running back and moved to quarterback as a freshman. Accustomed to years of "hard-nosed, run up the middle" football, O'Connor praised Esch for "allowing me to kind of find the offense myself. I always felt he was there for me, but he always let me fail and try to get back up."
Esch said O'Connor has "a great arm, he's smart and he runs hard. You can't ask for anything better than that."
Working with players is a big reason Esch, who stepped down as Mankato West's head coach after the 2016 season, returned to the sidelines.
"I just enjoy focusing on the offense and not doing all the other leg work that comes with the head coaching position," said Esch, who moved his family to the Twin Cities.
Esch runs the offense. Gegenheimer handles administrative duties and special teams. Add defensive coordinator Tom Menke and Prior Lake has what Gegenheimer considers "three head coaches that can work together."
Despite installing the spread offense, Prior Lake hasn't strayed far from its power football roots. A test of strength begins Friday at home against Maple Grove.
"The thing I like about Mark is, he's still a run guy," Gegenheimer said. "He has the same philosophy as we do."
Esch said, "With certain teams, the spread is more pass-oriented and for others it's more run-oriented. We're still trying to find what we do best. But we tell our kids to set the physical tone every week."