Stillwater high school running back Zach Knox. (Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune)
It is not a border battle. There is no traveling trophy at stake. None of the ingredients of a typical rivalry.
Yet, winning Thursday is vital for Roseville and Stillwater, teams eager to put the 2013 football season behind them, albeit for different reasons.
Roseville, the surprise team of last year, rose from relative obscurity to a Class 6A tournament semifinalist. The current Raiders seek to prove the success was no fluke.
Stillwater, meanwhile, ended with a six-game losing streak, unusual for a program crowned Suburban East Conference champion in three of the past five seasons.
While every team in Minnesota hopes to have a good showing on opening night, starting with a victory is imperative for the confidence of Roseville and Stillwater.
“Winning gets the enthusiasm going; it gets the kids’ attention,” Roseville coach Chris Simdorn said. “Those things are important, so the earlier you can get the first win is big. The longer that takes, you start to lose some guys here and there.”
Roseville’s fortunes last fall rested largely on the right arm of senior quarterback Jacques Perra. The Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year graduated and accepted preferred walk-on status at Minnesota. Some high school football observers figure Roseville’s potency left with Perra.
“Everyone makes comments about it in Roseville. They ask, ‘Are you guys going to be as good as last year?’ ” said senior Ty Hawton, starting center and linebacker. “I feel like people don’t really expect a ton from Roseville football because of our history. But coming in from last year, we have a lot of guys who won and know what you need to do to win.”
Hawton is one of seven returning starters, a group that includes senior runner/receiver Tommy Arcand and all-state senior receiver Jesper Horsted.
Roseville started fast last fall with a Week 1 upset of Cretin-Derham Hall. Immediate success, Hawton said, fueled playoff victories against Lakeville South and Maple Grove. Starting with a respected opponent such as Stillwater offers a similar opportunity.
“It’s really good to go up against a good team in the opener because if you win, it really builds confidence,” Hawton said. “You tell yourself, ‘If we can beat this team, we can beat any team.’ ”
Ironically, Stillwater’s victory against Cretin-Derham Hall — before a national audience on ESPN2 — served as a final highlight. Then 3-0, the Ponies spiraled to 3-6.
“We’re definitely over that,” said senior running back Zach Knox, the conference’s leading rusher in 2013 with 1,547 yards. “It’s always important to get that first win but if it is a loss, we’re not going to look at it as being 0-7. It’s a new season.”
Much is new at Stillwater. Senior quarterback DJ Skie slides down the line of scrimmage from his previous position at wide receiver. Skie led Stillwater to the Minnesota Vikings’ 7-on-7 passing league tournament championship, a jolt of confidence for all players involved. Simdorn said he saw more Ponies’ passing plays during a scrimmage, plus different defensive formations.
Stillwater coach Beau LaBore said the most important change is attitude.
“Last year was an anomaly,” LaBore said. “A lot of these guys played a big role in last year’s team and they’ve approached the winter, spring, summer and two-a-days with a little bit of a chip on their shoulders. They want to go out and make this season the best one they have ever been a part of.”