Cretin-Derham Hall star Jashon Cornell (DAVID JOLES/STARTRIBUNE)
Only twice in more than two decades has Cretin-Derham Hall’s football team failed to play into November.
The legacy of standouts such as Steve Walsh, Chris Weinke, Joe Mauer, Michael Floyd and Seantrel Henderson created an expectation of deep playoff runs at the St. Paul Catholic school.
This year’s Raiders are seeking redemption as the Class 6A section quarterfinal games begin Friday night for the state’s 32 largest schools. The team’s section quarterfinal loss to Woodbury last season marked the first time since 1989 that Cretin-Derham Hall went one-and-done in the playoffs — a span of 23 years.
“It’s unacceptable,” said Raiders coach Mike Scanlan, whose team missed the state tournament for only the second time since 1990. The Raiders were Prep Bowl champions in 1999 and 2009.
“We don’t want to have two years in a row where we don’t get out of our section,” Scanlan said.
The 7 p.m. game against Stillwater at the University of St. Thomas provides host Cretin-Derham Hall (6-2) a chance to square several accounts. A victory not only moves the Raiders within one game of the state tournament but it avenges a nationally televised loss to the Ponies (3-5) earlier this season.
ESPN2 carried Stillwater’s 21-7 upset victory on Sept. 13, a game that dropped Cretin-Derham Hall to 1-2 and got the critics howling.
“They’ve been questioning us a lot,” junior defensive end Jashon Cornell said. Ranked the nation’s No. 1 recruit in his class, Cornell was a big reason ESPN aired its first-ever Minnesota game. “But the past five games we’ve been holding our own. We showed we’re hungry.”
Often undisciplined during their first three games, the Raiders have been unbeatable since thanks to determination and defense. They never scored more than 20 points in victories against tough Suburban East Conference foes Mounds View, East Ridge and White Bear Lake, but they also never allowed more than seven points in that span.
“We knew the potential we possessed, as we knew that with hard work, we could turn things around,” senior cornerback Tim Gordon said. “We’re a hungrier team, a more serious team, a team that really wants to win.”
The defense “played out of their minds,” Scanlan said, in holding high-powered East Ridge 41.5 points below its season scoring average at the time in a 10-7 victory. The unit also played without Cornell, who was sidelined because of a concussion.
While Cornell’s national recruiting profile and 22 college offers get the attention, several players have emerged to solidify the defense. Junior inside linebacker Joey Dekker leads the team in tackles. Outside linebacker George Hottinger and fellow senior tackle Daniel Tillman have impressed. Scanlan considers Gordon “the best defensive back in the conference.”
Cornell, however, remains the catalyst. The 6-3, 245-pound end is a mix of strength and stunning quickness.
“Other people have made their mark, but it’s odd for a defensive end to be able to set the tone of the game, and I still think Jashon has that ability,” Scanlan said.
Friday’s game has extra meaning for Cornell, who agonized over missing the Woodbury game last season because of an injury and felt a bit overwhelmed by the national attention the last time he played Stillwater.
“I think it’s been a good year, but the playoffs show who you really are, what you can really do and if you’re the player you say you are,” Cornell said.
Stillwater’s five-game losing streak doesn’t bring the Raiders any comfort, Cornell said. “I think of it as we’re both 0-0 right now. They beat us, and that shows us we have to come harder than they did last time.”