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No all-state quarterback? No problem.
It wasn’t always as smooth a showing as Blaine was used to seeing last year from the 2010 Star Tribune’s Metro Player of the Year, Eric Kline. But new leader Duke Anyanwu certainly got the job done when it mattered in a 26-17 victory over Coon Rapids.
With seven minutes remaining, the Cardinals scored to pull within a field goal. The Bengals fought their way downfield in an attempt to run out the clock but found themselves facing fourth-and-7 at the Cardinals 35-yard line with three minutes left — ample time for Coon Rapids’ pass-happy Alex Aase.
Unproven quarterback? Why not go for it anyway?
“I said, 'Are you sure?’ ” said Blaine coach Shannon Gerrety of offensive coordinator Tom Develice’s fake option pass call. “Because we went for that fourth down earlier and we couldn’t get it. But you know what? We’re going to take chances and really press fourth down all year long.”
After throwing two interceptions earlier and falling inches short of a first down on another fourth-down attempt, Duke Anyanwu placed a perfect pass in the arms of Kunle Ayinde, who caught it just short of the end zone and ran in.
Even though the team had never practiced that play, Anyanwu was confident. “I was like 'Coach, we’ve got to go for it,’ because I trust in my teammates, I knew we could do it,” he said.
Anyanwu had rushed for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter to put Blaine up 10, but Gerrety wasn’t comfortable.
“Coon Rapids always has something up their sleeve,” he said. “We knew that they could move the football.”
The Cardinals did, scoring with seven minutes left, but the tight score only set up Blaine’s winning drive — and Anyanwu coming through once again.
“Look at him, he’s big, he’s strong, he’s fast — he’s a difference-maker,” Gerrety said.
Last summer, Mo Ward was content to keep the conditioning to a minimum.
This year – looking ahead to his senior season with Coon Rapids --the plan was already in place to go harder. Then he got a call from his “cousin,” star running back Antonio Ford, telling Ward he would be transferring to Wayzata that fall after moving for family reasons. So Ward turned up the heat.
“I really stepped it up this year,” Ward said. “I can feel the difference.”
The results are clear.
The Cardinals lost their first game of the season to Blaine on Friday, but Ward – who started just two games last season, while Ford was out with an injury -- nonetheless made himself known, and showed why coach Jon Young is able to dismiss the loss of Ford as “water under the bridge.”
Ward, who has called Ford his cousin since birth because his aunt is Ford’s godmother, took 22 carries for 103 yards rushing, converted two fourth downs and ran eight yards for a touchdown with seven minutes on the clock to pull the Cardinals within a field goal.
“He’s one of the best running backs if not the best running back in our conference and we expect him to play like that every week,” Young said. “He did that tonight – he carried the load.”
Ward said he can tell the conditioning – a 50 percent change from the previous offseason, he said -- has helped boost his stamina.
And as his physical presence has improved, with greater breakaway speed, cutting and more resilience after hits, his mind has gotten quicker as well.
“He’s really good at seeing blocks right off the line of scrimmage,” Young said. “And then when he gets open, he’s faster than people think.”
Ward may miss the chance to play his senior season with his cousin, but he’s intent on missing as few other opportunities on the field as possible.
“I just want to do anything to help us win,” he said.