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Lack of respect is an issue for Minnesota prep football teams

By Jason Gonzalez, Star Tribune, 08/27/13, 5:52PM CDT


Minnesota schools — even Eden Prairie — get little national attention.

Among the winning mix:  Eden Prairie football players, from left to right, Ronnie Spielman, Dan Fisher, Andrew O’Bert, Ryan Connelly, Charlie Venable and Anthony Anderson.

A third consecutive Eden Prairie state football championship could mean more than a No. 1 state ranking.

If the Eagles win the Class 6A title in November, they will be ranked as one of the nation’s best high school football teams. Well, that’s if they can avoid a set of losses, like last season, along the way. And, preferably, remain undefeated. And score a lot of points.

It would be the Eagles’ seventh undefeated season under coach Mike Grant’s reign and the first time a big school claimed back-to-back-to-back titles. Add all these accomplishments together and it’s worth a ranking somewhere near the bottom of USA Today’s and MaxPreps’ Top 25 polls, according to representatives from both outlets.

That’s it?

Grant asked the same question after his 2006 and 2007 teams went undefeated in winning championships. Eden Prairie finished No. 14 in MaxPreps’ 2007 poll and No. 16 in the USA Today poll. The Eagles’ most recent set of back-to-back championships weren’t even enough for a national mention.

“ ‘Well, how do you get to the top 10? How do you get there?’ I joked with the MaxPreps [representative],” Grant said. “He responded seriously: ‘You’ve got no chance. No hope.’ ”

The response might have been offensive to some coaches, but Grant said he doesn’t concern himself with national opinion. This feeling is shared by most of Minnesota’s best football programs and coaches.

Cretin-Derham Hall coach Mike Scanlan doesn’t know, or care to, if any of his teams have been nationally ranked in his 27 years with the program. During the days of Joe Mauer and Rashon Powers-Neal, the Raiders were rated among the top 15 in some national polls.

Minnetonka coach Dave Nelson has led his team against some of the Midwest’s top football programs from outside the state in the past several years. He’d prefer to keep his focus local, though.

This lack of interest has left Minnesota mostly forgotten when it comes to national prep football leaders.

USA Today’s Jim Halley compiles the national publications’ “Super 25.” As nice as he could say it, Halley said there is no way a Minnesota team climbs atop the poll this season. His decisions are based on regular conversations with coaches from around the county, past success and current-season results. Wins or losses against other highly rated programs are the most valuable.

Grant said he was contacted by one of Florida’s best high school football programs to fill the hole in this season’s schedule. Grant couldn’t remember the school’s name but did remember the team was ranked No. 1 in the country or state at some point last season.

Finances kept Eden Prairie, which has traveled by bus to Canada to play, from making the trip and a possible statement victory. The most feasible travel option, Grant said, was to charter a plane for $50,000. Grant, who defines himself as a simple man, wouldn’t do it.

“This is high school sports. You’re supposed to take an orange bus to games,” he said.

Cretin-Derham Hall knows what it’s like to go up against the nation’s best. In 2004, the Raiders traveled to Shreveport, La., for a late-season matchup against Evangel Christian Academy, the state’s best team.

“We got schooled. Let’s put it that way,” Scanlan said about the 47-7 defeat. “We had a decent team that year, and we weren’t able to compete that night. We didn’t represent ourselves very well.”

Eden Prairie’s 2013 senior core is convinced it would represent themselves and Minnesota well, given the chance.

“They’ve never seen how our line blocks,” said quarterback Ryan Connelly, who also plays for Eden Prairie’s nationally ranked lacrosse team.

Senior running back Anthony Anderson often wonders how the Eagles would fare against teams from Florida, Texas and California. After hearing whispers of the possibility of such a game this year, Anderson’s first thought was, “We’d have to prepare a lot.”

Returning members of the Eagles’ 2012 championship core have proved they can prepare for any Minnesota opponent. The leadership, skill and size of tight end Zach Hovey, left tackle Robert Olson, fullback Dan Fisher, running back Charlie Venable, Anderson and Connelly are the reasons coaches are favoring Eden Prairie to three-peat.

“I think we could go out and hold our own [around the country],” Anderson said.

Grant, who has coached at Eden Prairie for 21 years, said he asks recruiters how his players measure up to the rest of the country. “Football states have more skilled players and speed, but your [Eden Prairie’s] fundamentals would allow you to compete with anyone” Grant said he’s told.

If the Eagles continue to have problems filling their schedule, they might be forced to test this theory. Such games would be needed if Minnesota football ever hopes to claim national notice, Halley said.

Minnetonka has embraced out-of-state-matchups by necessity. Its Zero Week game last Friday was against one of Wisconsin’s best — Hudson. The Skippers’ track record against other states has been good, but they’ve struggled against top-tier teams.

MaxPreps national poll coordinator Stephen Spiewak said organizing interstate games is complicated and costly. They also are necessary for national recognition, he added.

Fifty two years of coaching Minnesota high school football has Brainerd’s Ron Stolski sure of one thing.

“One game, our best — Eden Prairie, Wayzata, Cretin — can play with anyone in the nation,” Stolski said. “We’re well-coached and have good players.”


Jason Gonzalez • 612-673-4494

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