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Eden Prairie savors view from the top

By DAVID LA VAQUE, Star Tribune, 11/29/13, 11:30AM CST


Q&A with Eden Prairie coach Mike Grant

Football coaches Mike Grant of Eden Prairie and Jeff Erdmann of Rosemount lead their teams into the Prep Bowl state championship game on Friday evening. Grant’s Eagles are trying to become the first team ever to win three consecutive titles in the largest class. Erdmann’s Irish, who took runner-up in 2010, are trying to close out the Metrodome era with a championship. Rosemount last won it all in 1981, the year before the bubble.

Star Tribune reporter David La Vaque spoke to both coaches during the two weeks of preparations. The game preview story can be read here. More from Grant is below. More from Erdmann is available here.

Q I’m told what’s different about this team is that it flips the axiom and your great offense is actually your best defense.
A I think you can say that but I think our defense has played well. We don’t have the Division I athletes over there – I don’t know how many of those kids will ever play any level of college football but they’ve played well together. Our coaches have done a great job with the defense. Here’s what we tell our kids – you don’t have to be a great player, you’ve just got to play great.

Q Is your defense underrated?
A I think it is underrated. If we can play great and win this game against their offense, then you have to ask, who did move the ball well against us? We played Wayzata, Minnetonka, Prior Lake, Lakeville North, Edina and Totino-Grace twice and none of those teams moved the ball well against us.

Q Rosemount has a dynamic element to its offense. What concerns you about the matchups?
A They do a lot of different things they are kind of like us in that once they find a weakness they gouge you on it over and over. That’s what they did to Roseville, they kept gouging them on this one play. They’ve got a very smart quarterback. They can power you and knock you back and when you start overplaying that, they run the option. And when you start moving up they will throw it over the top of you. You’ve got to be ready for everything. But we’ve seen really good offenses so I can’t say we’re worried about it. We respect every team but our kids are like, ‘We play against great teams every week.’

Q Is all this starting to mean a little more as you get older?
A I think the 1996 year was so exciting. There was a buzz. Honestly, I haven’t had an administrator in the whole district talk to me or send me an email. No one has brought it up. They must assume this is just what we do. In our community it isn’t going to be a huge event that we’re playing in this game. I don’t know if that’s good or bad. If you’ve been in 10 of them – this is the 10th one in 22 years – they assume you’re going to be there, I guess. If you go 12-1 in this community, people will feel bad for you. We have to convince people that 12-1 is a great season.
So to ask does this mean more? It means the same … it’s about these kids. I’m excited for this group of kids to play in it.

Q You are the favorites so how do tap into that confidence without burdening the kids with added pressure?
A We tell them that we want to control what we do. We want to play great. If a team beats us, we tip our hats to them. When we do lose, I tell the kids, ‘If the worst things that happens in your life is losing a state championship game, what a great life you’re going to have.’ If we get beat Friday, we’ll be emotional. Be we have our banquet Sunday and win or lose we will celebrate the season. We tell them, it’s not everything but it matters.

Q Are you curious to see yourself down 14-0 or 17-0 early on against Rosemount?
A We were down 7-0 to Elk River. No, I’m not worried about that. It’s more how the coaches react. [In the 2000 Prep Bowl, Cretin-Derham Hall returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown but the Eagles rallied to win.] In 2007 we kickoff to Cretin-Derham Hall and they return it for a touchdown again and I looked around and said, ‘Now we’ve got them right where we want them.’

Q Coaches say you’re most vulnerable in a situation where you would have come back. How right are they?
A What’s interesting is, we take the ball against Lakeville North and go 70 yards in 30 seconds and score the touchdown and that was the back-breaker. We can drive if we have to. We haven’t needed to do so far. So that would be kind of fun to see us come out throwing. Because the unknown thing here is, people don’t realize how good [quarterback Ryan] Connelly is. You put him on a passing team and he’s a first team all-state kid. He’s that good and he’s that fast.

Q Wilt Chamberlain said no one ever roots for Goliath. What are the challenges of being Goliath?
A I think our guys know most people will be pulling for Rosemount. The challenge is, and this group has done a good job of this, that they will just assume they are going to play great because they are Eden Prairie. They’ll just think that happens every time. They look at the coaches like we have some magic dust when it’s really about tackling and blocking.
But this team really hasn’t played a bad game. We fumbled a couple times against Lakeville North but the first half we played well. We had a couple penalties that showed a lack of focus. And part of it was, the locker room was just dead before that game. No enthusiasm. I think they thought we were going to just go out there and roll. Against Totino-Grace we were in the ramp and said, ‘We’re going to win this game by four touchdowns,’ because our kids were so into it. We talked all week about how hard you have to play. You have to appreciate when you get to the state tournament.

Q A win Friday would be three titles in a row but taking everything into account would it also be the best three years of Eden Prairie football?
A It probably has to be. But if we win the game, we’ve got the banquet on Sunday and weight training on Monday. You’re into the next year and we’ll have 70-80 kids in there Monday getting ready. That’s the sad part of about it. That team is never together again.
You know, there’s something to be said for getting to the last practice. You’ve done everything you can do and now you’ve got to have a few breaks. You’ve got to get the calls. You’ve got to not fumble. And if you do fumble, if it bounces this way you win and if it bounces that way you lose. You can’t control all of that. But you get to that last practice and then you go play great. We don’t talk about banners and those things. We talk about the great kids we’ve had play here. We talk about how that’s how we want them to be.

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