“He can do so much to help a team in so many different ways,'' Rosemount coach Jeff Erdmann said. "He could start at any position for any team and that’s a crazy thing to say in Class 6A. -- Photo by Nicole Neri, special to the Star Tribune
Best friends since they were 4 years old, Antonio Bugni can’t single out one moment that defines Jake Ratzlaff’s marvelous athletic skills.
"There was the time we were playing pickup basketball and he threw down a 360-dunk. And he doesn’t even play basketball,” Bugni recalled. “Oh wait, when we were playing [14-U] baseball and he hit four home runs, all over the fence. We’ve played doubles in tennis and we beat the varsity guys. He’s a scratch golfer.”
Bugni paused, then summed it up. “He’s unreal.”
Emphasizing Bugni’s point is that he didn’t mention the two sports for which Ratzlaff is best known. The 6-3, 215-pound Rosemount senior is a highly sought after hockey player. He was captain of the U.S. U-18 Men’s Select team that competed in the Czech Republic in 2019, about two years after he, as a freshman, had given a verbal commitment to play for the University of Minnesota.
Now Ratzlaff is the 2020 Star Tribune Metro Football Player of the Year, a dynamic, blunt-force weapon as a safety/linebacker hybrid.
He led undefeated Rosemount in tackles, interceptions, defensive touchdowns and blocked kicks. Offensively as a receiver, he had 10 receptions for 209 yards and three touchdowns, leading the run-first Irish in all three categories through their six games.
“And he’s a great blocker, too,” Irish coach Jeff Erdmann said. “He can do so much to help a team in so many different ways. He could start at any position for any team and that’s a crazy thing to say in Class 6A. He’s just a different cat.”
He attracted plenty of big school attention for his defensive play and Monday announced his decision to play football at Wisconsin, where he was recruited to be a linebacker.
“I love football so much,” he said. “I would do anything to play football.”
He chose Wisconsin over offers from Minnesota, Iowa and Iowa State.
It’s not that he doesn’t love hockey as well. Or baseball, for which he’s also had college offers (“I know Iowa said he could play baseball and football,” Bugni said).
But there’s something special about football — its controlled aggression, its celebration of physicality, its one-for-all mentality — that reaches Ratzlaff deeply.
Ratzlaff during the National Anthem before a section game against East Ridge. Photo by Nicole Neri, special to the Star Tribune
“I’m not an angry person, but when I step on the football field, I can take out all my aggressions,” said Ratzlaff, articulating verbally what comes naturally. “If I’ve got anything bottled up, I just let it out on the field.”
His reputation as a big hitter is well-known in football circles. It’s evident the moment he steps on the field, the way opponents approach him. He plays the game at full-speed — the only way he knows how — and it shows every time he makes contact. After his tackles, opponents often get up gingerly, scanning for alternate paths to take next time.
“A lot of kids like football, but don’t like to go out and hit,” he said. “I go out and hit as hard as I can and then go back and do it again. I feel like I’ve got something to prove out there.”
“His physicality is really important,” Erdmann said. “The big thing about Jake, with that intensity, you know he’s just sitting back there, waiting to make that next highlight clip, to come up and rock somebody.”
The only thing he enjoys better than a good collision is the effect it has on his teammates. He knows they look to him to set the example.
“When I look in the mirror, I know that it starts with me,” Ratzlaff said. “If I’m going to help everyone else on this team, I’ve got to set the tone right away.”
While Ratzlaff’s repertoire of big blows gets ever larger, the rest of the Irish appreciate each and every one and try to emulate their leader. Against East Ridge in their 42-0 season finale, Ratzlaff stopped the Raptors’ top running back dead in his tracks early in the game.
“That got us going,” said Bugni, a defensive back who will play football and baseball at St. Scholastica. “We feed off of him, for sure.”
Before Monday, the offseason looked to be a busy one for Ratzlaff. He’ll undergo surgery to his right shoulder to repair a labrum that was torn at the start of his junior season.
His announcement Monday resolved the uncertainty over the hockey/football dilemma, fulfilling a prediction by Erdmann.
“One recruiter told me he’ll be playing in the Big Ten next season,” Erdmann said. “I believe he’ll be on the field. He’s that good.”
The Badgers are getting a hardworking, no-nonsense, team-first player who plays with the same intensity in the last minute as in the first.
“I want people to say I’m relentless,” Ratzlaff said. “I want a coach to look at me and see that my motor never stops.”
Jake Ratzlaff (21) of Rosemount ran for a touchdown in a game against Champlin Park on Oct. 30. Photo by Korey McDermott, SportsEngine
2019: RaJa Nelson, Lakeville North, QB/DB
2018: Matt Cavanagh, Edina, RB/DB
2017: Antonio Montero, Eden Prairie, RB/LB
2016: Brad Davison, Maple Grove, QB
2015: J.D. Spielman, Eden Prairie, Athlete
2014: Robbie Grimsley, Hutchinson, RB
2013: Jacques Perra, Roseville, QB
2012: Bridgeport Tusler, Osseo, RB
2011: Trey Heid, Lakeville North, QB
2010: Eric Kline, Blaine, QB
2009: A.J. Tarpley, Wayzata, LB
2008: Anders Lee, Edina, QB
2007: Michael Floyd, Cretin-Derham Hall, WR
2006: Blake Sorensen, Eden Prairie, LB/RB
2005: Jake Machacek, Eastview, RB
2004: Walker Ashley, Eden Prairie, DL
2003: Nathan Swift, Hutchinson, RB
2002: John Majeski, Hastings, RB/DB
2001: Kim Sarin, Cretin-Derham Hall, RB/KR
2000: Joe Mauer, Cretin-Derham Hall, QB
1999: Dominique Sims, DeLaSalle, QB/DB
1998: Thomas Tapeh, St. Paul Johnson, RB
1997: Marvin Spencer, Blaine, RB
1996: Adam Runk, Stillwater, DB/WR
1995: Aaron Runk, Stillwater, RB
1994: LeRoy McFadden, Eden Prairie, RB
1993: Tommy Reynolds, St. Paul Johnson, RB
1992: Marcus Harris, Brooklyn Center, RB
1991: Carl McCullough, Cretin-Derham Hall, RB
1990: Bryce Darnell, Brooklyn Center, QB
1989: Joe Dziedzic, Minneapolis Edison, RB/LB
1988: Paul Meyer, Minneapolis Henry, RB/LB
1987: Rod Smith, Roseville, RB
1986: Kurt Gunning, Stillwater, RB
1985: Bob Coughlin, Osseo, NG
Ron Goetz, Waconia, RB/LB
1984: Steve Walsh, Cretin-Derham Hall, QB