Lakeville North quarterback Zach Creighton
Grant Shaeffer during practice Wednesday at Eden Prairie. Photo by Bruce Bisping/Star Tribune firstname.lastname@example.org
Expect a quarterback battle of panache vs. poise to figure prominently in the inaugural Class 6A battle Friday for Minnesota high school football supremacy.
Zach Creighton of Lakeville North is the one with flash. The Panthers' best athlete led his team into the finals in his first year as starting quarterback. Look for his passes or runs to be high-risk, game-breaker-type plays, as they have been much of the season.
Grant Shaeffer of Eden Prairie is the steady one. His role is to mostly hand off the ball to stellar running backs, but linemen say his leadership gives the team confidence. His competitiveness is also known to ramp up in big moments, even if he's not compiling gaudy statistics.
The two seniors lead two teams vying for the showcase championship of the Prep Bowl, seven games held Friday and Saturday at the Metrodome.
Trying to catch Zach Creighton is like trying to catch a fly with tweezers.
The Lakeville North senior quarterback is the embodiment of energy when he has the ball in his hands. Impossible escapes, electrifying runs, remarkable throws -- they're all part of Creighton's game.
"I know I'm a high-risk, high-reward kind of player," Creighton admitted. "That's always been the way I've played. I'm just trying to use my abilities to make a play."
In his only year as a starter at quarterback, Creighton has put his stamp on the position -- not a small feat, considering he replaced Trey Heid, who was the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year in 2011.
Too talented to sit on the bench -- "Easily the best athlete on our team," coach Brian Vossen said earlier this season -- Creighton started at safety in his sophomore and junior seasons and still sees regular playing time on defense.
"I've played quarterback all my life until last year," he said. "I knew Trey was the senior and deserved the reins, but playing quarterback is my love. I was looking forward to my senior year so much."
He's made the most of his opportunity, passing for nearly 1,500 yards and rushing for more than 800. He was named the South Suburban Conference Offensive Player of the Year.
Creighton knows his Tasmanian Devil-style of play comes with a downside. He threw four interceptions in the Panthers' only loss of the season, 10-6 to Prior Lake.
No matter. His style is not about to change now.
"I think I've earned the coaches' trust and they don't question me, even if I make a mistake," he said. "I consider myself a playmaker, and they've said they never want to take away a playmaker's ability to make plays."
In his football fantasies, Eden Prairie quarterback Grant Shaeffer leads his Eagles to state titles by throwing for substantial yardage and a few touchdowns. After all, what kid grows up hoping to hand off his way to glory?
The idea draws a laugh from Shaeffer. But he takes the less-glamorous role of game manager seriously. Some of the Eagles' past championships were won with the arms of quarterbacks. Defeating Lakeville North on Friday for the Eagles' second consecutive state title and eighth overall will depend on Shaeffer's poise rather than production.
"You've got to have the mindset that you're going to lead the offense and that's the main job out there," Shaeffer said. "You're not going to throw [for] 250 yards and four touchdowns. You know that going in, and you've just got to be a leader out there."
In 10 starts this season, Shaeffer completed 23 of 39 passes for 295 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions. His longest pass went for 38 yards. He added 193 yards rushing and five touchdowns.
A defensive back as a sophomore, Shaeffer impressed Eagles coach Mike Grant with his calm yet competitive nature on the basketball court.
"Whatever confidence thing an offense has starts with the quarterback," Grant said. "Some of our linemen told me, 'We're the most confident when he's on the field.'"
Grant learned that lesson the hard way. He moved Shaeffer to defensive back this season to try other players under center and the Eagles lost twice.
"We kind of said, 'How stupid are we if we've got the state championship quarterback sitting there and we don't put him back?'" Grant said. "He doesn't have the rocket arm, but all he does is win."
DAVID LA VAQUE
As coach Andy Rostberg made his way through town this week, a stream of well-wishers and back-slappers meandered over, offering encouragement and congratulations.
"You can't go anywhere without someone wanting to stop on the street and visit," Rostberg said.
Which is just the way he likes it.
Rostberg was the quarterback and his father, Grady, the coach of the Tigers' state championship teams in 1983 and 1984. He's seen first-hand how important football is to this community of 14,000, an hour west of the Twin Cities.
"There's nothing like it," he said. "It's one night a week. On Friday, you go to the game with your family. It's a big deal. The whole community gets involved."
While football has always been woven into the fabric of the community, it's been particularly notable this season. The undefeated Tigers are within a game of the school's fourth state championship and first since 1998.
"It's such an exciting tradition," senior linebacker Shaun Schindler said. "The team, the coaches, the parents, the whole town. There are so many people to play for."
The most gratifying part, Rostberg said, is what he sees around town.
"You drive around and in every backyard, you see kids playing football or playing catch with their dads," he said. "The boys, they look up to the older boys and want to be like them. I know I did."
Rochester Lourdes' 2012 postseason experience is a prime example of the value of seniors.
There was no worry, no sense of desperation last Saturday when the No. 1-ranked Eagles trailed Annandale 14-0 in the first half of the Class 3A semifinals. It was the first time they had been behind all season. There was plenty of time to correct the situation.
They did, rallying for a 20-16 victory and a chance to win their second Class 3A title in three years. Lourdes beat Holy Family 41-13 for the 2010 3A championship.
"We told our seniors, 'Hey, if you want another week of football, you have to pick it up,'" Lourdes coach Mike Kesler said. "It all comes down to senior leadership."
Kesler said Lourdes' previous state tournament experience was invaluable.
"For a lot of the team, it's all new here, but the seniors have been through it before," he said. "They explain it to the young guys, what to expect and how to not get caught up in it and stay focused. You wouldn't think that with the start we had [against Annandale], but it's definitely a plus."
On a defense featuring several stellar athletes, Owatonna junior end Andrew Stelter stands apart.
During a season that has seen the Huskies rewrite large chunks of their record book, Stelter has created a new standard for future pass-rushers.
Owatonna plays Totino-Grace, winners of six state titles since 2003, in the Prep Bowl Class 5A title game Saturday. The teams' strengths will collide: the Eagles' pounding running game vs. the Huskies' staunch defense.
"They are a good program that likes to be physical and we like to be physical, too," said Stelter, a 6-4, 245-pound defensive end who squats more than 500 pounds.
Owatonna coach Jeff Williams estimated his team broke as many as 15 program records this season, many tied to the success of its passing game. Stelter set a new single-season record with 11 quarterback sacks.
"Andrew is the third- or fourth-fastest kid on our team," Williams said. "He's quick off the ball and doesn't stay blocked for long."
Those attributes caught the eye of college programs. Stelter said Minnesota is the only school to offer him a scholarship so far but he remains interested in other schools, including Nebraska.
DAVID LA VAQUE