Senior captain Antonio Montero serves as a kicker and running back for Eden Prairie, but he identifies first with being a linebacker.
Eden Prairie and Lakeville North are powerful high school football programs that measure success in terms of November results.
But undeniable importance rests on their meeting Friday. The host Eagles and the Panthers are the top two teams in both the Associated Press and Star Tribune metro top-10 rankings. Neither team is scheduled to play defending Class 6A Prep Bowl champion Totino-Grace, which means this game — even in only Week 2 — likely will hold up as the most anticipated of the regular season.
“This is a state championship-caliber game,” Eagles coach Mike Grant said. “This game won’t define us, but it’s why we play at Eden Prairie.”
Lakeville North coach Brian Vossen said of the early September game with a late November flavor: “Is it a must-win game? No. Is it a must-need-on-our-schedule game? Yes.”
It’s their first meeting since 2013, when the Eagles defeated the Vossen-led Panthers in the state tournament quarterfinals. A year earlier, Eden Prairie beat Lakeville North in the Prep Bowl. Before Vossen took over as coach in 2010, they played in four regular-season games, from Lakeville North’s debut season in 2005 to 2008, with Eden Prairie winning all of them.
To Friday’s victor goes a clearer sense of what it takes to win a state championship, something only one Eden Prairie player can claim of the more than 150 players on the teams’ varsity rosters.
Eagles senior captain Antonio Montero shared kicking duties for the 2014 Prep Bowl champions. He now ranks as one of the state’s top linebackers, drawing Division I college interest. He also runs the ball, scoring two touchdowns in last week’s opener, a 35-7 victory over Eastview.
Growth applies to both Montero’s gameday duties and his desire. He is eager to end his fourth and final season as he did his first, as a state champion. Defeating Lakeville North adds credence to those aspirations.
“I see it as extremely important to see how we’ll play against big teams further on in the season,” Montero said. “They have really good offensive and defensive lines and a lot of good athletes, too.”
Montero displays his athletic abilities in all the game’s facets. Grant said colleges not expressing interest in Montero because of a lack of size (6-0, 215 pounds) or blazing 40-yard dash times are missing out.
“We measure guys by how many big plays they make, and he’s as good as anybody we’ve had,” said Grant, comparing Montero to past Eagles standouts Ryan Iversen and Blake Cashman.
Told of his company, Montero said: “During our two-a-days we watch all the state championship games and we see guys like Iversen and Cashman who are outstanding players. So to be put in that category is unbelievable.”
The linebacker position, despite Montero’s kicking and running skills, ranks first in his heart.
“That’s what has brought me the most success at a high level,” he said.
Eden Prairie defensive coordinator Mark Ritter said he considers Montero to be “probably one of the most intuitive linebackers I’ve coached. Tony just loves to play. So because of that exuberance, you’re relaxed, and because you’re relaxed — and you’re talented — then you can really go.”
Switching gears from seek-and-destroy linebacker to cerebral kicker isn’t easy.
“You have to calm yourself down for sure, especially after a long series at linebacker,” said Montero, who connected on all five extra-point attempts last week. “A lot of kicking is mental, and you want to make sure you don’t overkick the ball."
A huge mental test came in the Prep Bowl when he was a freshman. Montero’s turn in the extra-point rotation meant he would decide whether the Eagles led by six or seven points with just 2:46 left. Then a 5-yard penalty made the pressure kick even longer. He drilled what became the deciding point in a 28-27 victory.
“I remember running to the sideline like this,” said Montero, arms flexed skyward and laughing. “The little freshman.”