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Jake Wieneke (19), a big target at 6 feet 5, and Brycen Wojta are tied for the team lead with 38 receptions each. Wojta is also a threat to run the ball for the undefeated Crimson. Star Tribune photo by Renee Jones Schneider
He's better known as Blake Skaja, senior quarterback of the undefeated Crimson. He has completed almost 70 percent of his passes for 1,133 yards and 11 touchdowns, outstanding numbers for a first-year quarterback measuring all of 5-10, 170 pounds.
"He looks like Ichabod Schnerd," joked Crimson coach Matt Lombardi, who occasionally bestows the made-up name on players of Skaja's stature. "He's a skinny-minny."
Skaja (pronounced Sky-ya) admitted he doesn't awe with his presence under center, "especially after last year when you had Brady [Jacobs], who was 6-4 and had a rocket arm. I'm completely the opposite. I just go out and try to do whatever I can to get the ball in my receivers' hands. I know I'm not the best athlete, but I know they are."
Skaja's understated talents, along with his work ethic and zest for competition, personify a team that's gone from underachiever to one of the state's best. Already 5-1, the No. 7 Crimson moved to 6-0 when rival Osseo recently forfeited its Week 2 victory for using an ineligible player.
Even before they were retroactively ruled the winners, Maple Grove players took the 26-20 loss as a moral victory.
"Osseo players were jumping around like it was a big win and I told our players, 'That's good because there were years that wouldn't have been the case,' " Lombardi said.
Another plus, Lombardi said, was the manner in which the Crimson competed despite the absence of senior wide receiver Jake Wieneke, who missed the Osseo game because of an injury. Wieneke is 6-5 and his running and jumping ability makes him a matchup nightmare for most teams. He has logged more than 100 yards receiving in three games and caught four touchdown passes against Centennial last week.
"Jake thinks that if there are six guys on him I can throw it to him and he'll catch it," Skaja said. "To be fair, that's probably true. He told me that he won't let a ball I throw to him get picked off and he's kept his word."
Wieneke's 38 receptions tie senior Brycen Wojta for the team lead. An ability to make catches underneath, turn screen plays into big gains and carry the ball when asked makes the versatile Wojta an ideal complement to Wieneke's deep threat.
"He runs the best routes on our team so I always know where he's going to be," Skaja said. "He does all the stuff that keeps a defense honest."
The Crimson, which plays at home against Coon Rapids on Friday night, knows the danger in expecting too much. Excitement within the program and among football observers was high last season. Lombardi came in having built the defenses for three Wayzata state championship teams. Maple Grove, a large school in an affluent community, was viewed as a sleeping giant. Reality set in as a 0-3 start led to a 4-6 finish.
"We knew we could have been a lot better last year," Wieneke said. "We felt like we were a lot better at the end of the year than we showed."
Said Skaja: "Last season, we came in with a lot of high hopes and we expected to win but we started flat. It took a lot of soul searching for us, especially this offseason. We knew we had the talent to do it. We just had to put in the work. We've done that now."
Lombardi, sporting a goatee because he lost a bet and cannot shave as long as the Crimson wins, said improvement this season "emulates what I'm trying to teach them -- you have to earn your respect. We did great things at Wayzata but we achieved that."
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574