Coach Nick Rusin talked to the Coon Rapids High School football team after practice on Monday. The Cardinals play Saturday in the state tournament for the first time since they won a Prep Bowl in 1983. Photos: LEILA NAVIDI • email@example.com
Former Blaine football coach Shannon Gerrety keeps a 2008 photo on his office wall of the Bengals standing together, poised to take the Metrodome turf for the state tournament semifinals.
“That’s the team that resurrected us,” said Gerrety, whose team finished 3-7 the previous season.
Then-senior Nick Rusin, a wide receiver and a team captain, stands front row center. He holds a similar place as a first-year head coach overseeing this season’s revival at Coon Rapids.
The Cardinals won a combined 22 games in the past 10 seasons and lost 23 consecutive games from 2014-17, including three 0-9 seasons. This year, with a 7-3 record, they qualified for their first state tournament since 1983, when they won a Prep Bowl championship.
Recent history makes this level of success at Coon Rapids seem improbable. But Gerrety believed in Rusin, who at 29 years old has already coached seven seasons at the high school level. Rusin spent the past six seasons at Blaine.
“Even as a young cat, he dove in head first,” Gerrety said. “He’s a young, energetic coach who relates to kids.
“And he’s one heck of dancer,” Gerrety said with a laugh.
Coach Nick Rusin
For 12 years of his youth Rusin danced at the Stage Door studio in Coon Rapids. He grew up following the path of Digger Anderson, an older dancer at Stage Door who became an all-time great Coon Rapids linebacker.
“I’ve got a move or two,” said Rusin, grinning.
The ultimate stage, U.S. Bank Stadium, is one victory away. The Cardinals play Spring Lake Park (8-2) in a Class 5A quarterfinal at noon on Saturday at Osseo High School, a rematch of a 23-14 Coon Rapids victory on Sept. 13.
Defeating the Panthers, state tournament qualifiers in four of the past five seasons, was “a huge moment for our boys to say ‘We’re a good football team and we have the capability of beating great teams,’ ” Rusin said.
Confidence, success, even stability, were scarce the past decade. So was credibility.
Coon Rapids? Pfft.
Myles Taylor, right, and Jordan Nolan joked around during practice.
“People thought we were losers,” senior defensive end Myles Taylor said.
There were internal doubts, too. Last season, 81 football players in grades 10 through 12 were on the sidelines for the first game. Just 46 remained at the end of a 3-6 season.
When Rusin took over in March, he became the program’s third head coach in four years. Knowing players might be slow to trust the message of yet another new leader, Rusin’s first move was making his guys accountable to each other.
“Our No. 1 rule as a Cardinal football player is that you don’t let your teammates down,” Rusin said. “If you’re doing that every single practice and in school and during games, you’ll attain your goals.”
The senior class bought in.
Quarterback Jake Van Hulzen, in white, ran a play during practice.
“The biggest difference this year is that everyone is trusting each other,” senior quarterback Jake Van Hulzen said. “That’s brought success on the field.”
Rusin and his staff also succeeded in rebuilding the program’s numbers. They recruited players who quit and persuaded others to try football. They came, they saw, they stayed. The state tournament roster lists 81 players in grades 10-12.
Seeking relief in the midst of the team’s 0-23 slump, school administrators successfully petitioned the Minnesota State High School League to place Coon Rapids, then a Class 6A school, into Class 5A for the postseason, despite an enrollment large enough for the bigger class.
The Cardinals didn’t win a postseason game the past two seasons. But the competition fit better. They will play Class 5A next postseason as wellbut what happens in 2021 is uncertain, said activities director Tom Develice, a former Blaine head football coach.
“It’s not an automatic that we now belong back in 6A,” Develice said. “If Coon Rapids finished the last three regular seasons 8-0, I would be saying something different.”
One thing is certain: The senior class has shed the “losers” tag.
“That put a chip on our shoulder to prove that we can win,” Taylor said. His older brother, former Cardinals’ quarterback Blair Townsend, lost to Blaine one game shy of the 2008 state tournament. “Coming out victorious, finally, helped solidify that.”