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North-metro football teams not ready to turn in their gear

By David La Vaque, Star Tribune, 10/29/13, 6:55PM CDT


Eight north-metro football teams are still standing in the playoffs. How many will be left after section finals Friday night?

Andover vs. Osseo prep football. Osseo running back Jaimen Hampton (21) picked his way through the Andover defense. (MARLIN LEVISON/STARTRIBUNE(mlevison@startribune.com) ORG XMIT: MIN1309272107374488

The big schools of Class 6A call it the round of 16. Everyone else knows them as section finals. Bottom line: The football games this week decide who goes to state and who turns in their gear. Here’s a look at north-metro teams’ matchups. All games start at 7 p.m. Friday.

Class 6A

Minnetonka (6-3) at Maple Grove (9-0)

Minnetonka ended Maple Grove’s season in this game last season but Crimson coach Matt Lombardi downplayed talk of revenge as he prepares players this week.

Lombardi did acknowledge, however, getting good mileage out of last year’s experience playing a perennially solid program from the rock-solid Lake Conference. Players saw first-hand what Lombardi, who won three state titles as Wayzata’s defensive coordinator, had preached about elite tempo and crisp execution.

Speaking of Wayzata, this Maple Grove team models the Trojans’ strengths of running the ball well and playing disruptive defense. The Wienke family is a microcosm of the Crimson’s new identity. Last season, Jake dominated as a wide receiver in a pass-first offense. This fall, younger brother Clark, a running back, leads the Crimson’s run-heavy attack with 1,021 yards.

Tahi Nomane has added 910 yards to the ground game while sophomore free safety Isaac Collins, whom Lombardi called “a special athlete,” has emerged as another backfield option in the last few games.

Defensively, Maple Grove is led by Collins, linebacker Emmanual Ehrich and free safety Jake Engelken. The unit has scored six touchdowns this season and earned Lombardi’s praise for playing fast and smart.

But the Crimson face questions about strength of schedule and experience at quarterback. Maple Grove did not face Osseo or Totino-Grace, the two additional Northwest Suburban Conference teams in the final Associated Press top 10, this season.

“That is absolutely a valid question,” Lombardi said. “I want to play as many great teams as we can but we can only play the teams we’re given.”

Injuries also limited Lombardi’s control of the quarterback situation. Starter Corey Ross was lost for the season in a preseason scrimmage. Backup Karl Altenburg went down during the season, thrusting linebacker Evan Pukal into the role. Hard-working and athletic, Pukal’s nerves and inexperience contributed to a 2-for-13 showing against Anoka in the first round of the playoffs.

“He did some good things with his feet,” Lombardi said. Pukal ran five times for 54 yards against Anoka. “The more he plays, the better he’ll get. I am comfortable with him.”


No. 7 Prior Lake (7-2) at No. 5 Osseo (8-1)

Osseo coach Derrin Lamker holds opponent Prior Lake is high regard, ranking the two-time state entrant Lakers among “the top-six programs in the state the past two years.” He had similar praise for his players.

“Our belief is higher than it’s ever been,” Lamker said. “We’ve had two really good seasons back-to-back and guys are starting to realize, ‘We’re not just some small 6A school.’ They feel they can play with the big boys.”

That faith isn’t just a hunch. It’s rooted in recent history. Closing the regular season with a victory against Totino-Grace, a model program for years, has Osseo believing its 19-year state tournament drought could end Friday.

The Orioles are more adept at throwing the ball than Prior Lake but both teams hurt opponents with the ability to be balanced. Osseo quarterback Matt Miedtke continued his season-long assault on secondaries with four touchdown passes in a first-round rout of Champlin Park. Other weapons include running back Jaimen Hampton, tight end Joshua Riley-Phillips and receiver Connor Kittleson.


Class 5A

Spring Lake Park (7-3) at Andover (6-3)

A rematch of last season’s semifinal, won by Spring Lake Park, features two teams that were humbled at times this season but came back hungry.

Halfway through the regular season Andover was 4-0 and averaged 40 points per game. Then better opponents, more mistakes and a few injuries resulted in a total of just 20 points scored during a 0-3 skid.

Andover rebounded to win its past two games in blowout fashion. Quarterback Connor Wilkie completed 72 percent of his passes for 454 yards and six touchdowns while throwing just one interception in those two victories. Running back Derek McLaughlin ran for five touchdowns and more than 250 yards.

The biggest lesson from the slump, Huskies’ coach Rich Wilkie said, was how the margin for error shrinks when the opponent is able to run the ball and limit the Huskies’ opportunities. With that in mind, Spring Lake Park presents a huge challenge.

The Panthers stumbled to a 0-2 start but won seven of their next eight games. Their stable of runners, including Grant Walter, Ejodamen Ejiya, Austin Swenson and Richie Toweh, move the pile and the chains.

Where Andover struggled in key moments at times this season, Spring Lake Park surged in the section semifinals at Mahtomedi. Following a late touchdown that moved his team within a point, Walter shouted to coaches to go for a two-point conversion and the lead. Walter, the receiver on the two-point conversion pass, took away a ball from two Zephyrs defenders in the end zone in a 15-14 victory.


Class 6A

Centennial (5-4) at No. 1 Eden Prairie (8-0): The Cougars are huge underdogs on the road at the two-time defending state champions.

Mounds View (7-2) at No. 3 Rosemount (8-1): The Mustangs will attempt to slow Rosemount, the only team many observers believe can challenge Eden Prairie.

No. 9 Totino-Grace (7-2) at No. 6 Wayzata (6-2): The Eagles will face a defense as tough as their own, though both programs have fielded better teams in recent years.


Class 3A

Columbia Heights (7-2) at No. 5 St. Croix Lutheran (7-2): The biggest test of the Hylanders’ comeback season awaits.

David La Vaque • 612-673-7574

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