Reporting Jeff Wald
MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – When football teams gathered for the first football practices of the season back in August, everyone had dreams of getting to the state playoffs and playing for a championship in the Metrodome.
Friday night, 42 teams will realize that goal of winning a section title and moving on to the state tournament. The losers go home disappointed, wondering what might have been and what more could’ve been done to win the biggest game of the year.
Section Championship Friday is one of my favorite days of the year. Games are intense with everything on the line, and there are rarely blowouts. It’s all about celebrating with your team at the end of the night Friday and hoisting the “Section Champion” trophy.
There are several great games around the state, but we can only choose four to preview. Here’s our “Big 4” for Section Championship Friday.
Spring Lake Park (9-0) at Totino-Grace (9-0)
It doesn’t get much better than when a pair of undefeated teams meet for the section championship, and it creates an even better atmosphere when they’re rivals. That’s the case Friday night as Totino-Grace, the No. 1-ranked team in 5A, hosts No. 2-ranked Spring Lake Park. They are North Suburban Conference rivals who happened not to meet during the regular season. It’s our featured Game of the Week for High School Sports Rally.
The Eagles win with a balanced attack on offense dominating front seven on defense. Quarterback A.J. LaPanta is the team’s leading passer, while a running back by committee approach is led by Mason Kaliszewski and Kai Barber. Totino-Grace runs over its opponents to the tune of more than 250 yards per game, and just when you’ve committed to stopping that attack, the Eagles can burn you with the deep pass and trick plays.
The Panthers snuck by Andover to reach the section title game, but their approach will be nothing new to a familiar opponent. Stopping it, however, will still be a daunting challenge. They’re led by quarterback Austin Swenson and running back Ejodamen Ejiyah. Tyler Evans had 102 yards rushing and two touchdowns in Spring Lake Park’s playoff win over Andover.
These two teams definitely don’t like each other, but they respect each other’s talent and ability to make big plays. This game will be won at the line of scrimmage. While being a Totino-Grace alum might make me biased, I can’t pick against the Eagles on their home field. I’ll take Totino-Grace in a game that goes down to the wire.
Class 6A Round Of 16
Minnetonka (4-5) at Maple Grove (9-0)
Maple Grove is the lone unbeaten team in Class 6A at 9-0, and the Crimson might feel slighted being ranked No. 6 in the class. They’ll host Minnetonka for a trip to the first Class 6A State Tournament Friday night. The Crimson are battle tested with wins over Blaine, Elk River and Champlin Park, but the Skippers bring a new level of athleticism to the table. Three of Minnetonka’s five losses are to top-10 teams. Home field is huge in these games, and it’s why I’ll pick Maple Grove to win a nail-biter.
Class 6A Round Of 16
Eden Prairie (7-2) at Osseo (6-3)
Last year’s big class state champion has come back to reality this season with consecutive losses to end the regular season. Now Eden Prairie is faced with something it’s rarely had to do to get to the state tournament: Win a road game. The Eagles will be at Osseo Friday night for a trip to the 6A State Tournament on the line. Osseo forfeited its first two games of the season for using an ineligible player, but otherwise would be a 1-loss team. If there’s a road team out there who can win in a hostile environment, it’s Eden Prairie. It should be a very close game, but I’ll take the Eagles by a field goal.
Glencoe-Silver Lake (8-1) at Hutchinson (9-0)
Another pair of bitter rivals square off for rights to the state tournament Friday night west of the Twin Cities as Hutchinson hosts Glencoe-Silver Lake in the Section 2AAAA title game. When the two teams meet earlier this season, Hutchinson cruised to a 35-13 victory. With the state tournament on the line, I would expect this game to be a lot closer. It’s No. 2 versus No. 4 in Class 4A, and I’ll take the Tigers to fend off the Panthers behind quarterback McKinley Anderson.
Other Key Match-Ups
There are two other match-ups Friday night that simply can’t go unnoticed with state tournament berths on the line. South St. Paul (8-1) is looking get back to state after falling to Mankato West in the quarterfinals. The Packers will host Classic Suburban rival Hill-Murray (7-2) Friday night.
In another key game, No. 7-ranked Waterville-Elysian-Morristown travels to Arlington to face No. 8-ranked Sibley East in the Section 2AA title game. The Buccaneers are coming off an emotional win over Medford the same day that a senior captain, Brady Hruska, died in a hunting accident. It would be an incredible story for W-E-M to advance to the state tournament following the tragedy.
Tune into WCCO-TV’s High School Sports Rally at about 10:20 p.m. Friday as Mike Max, Frank Vascellaro and John Lauritsen will have all the action covered.