Eden Prairie head coach Mike Grant was reflective after the Eagles’ 29-7 victory over Woodbury on Thursday night to close out the regular season schedule.
His team has shown balance on both sides of the ball throughout the 2023 campaign, but perhaps never more than in their road win to finish with a perfect 8-0 record.
The Eagles possess considerable depth and talent, which Grant has cultivated, providing players up and down the roster with opportunities to build on their success.
“I just think the big thing is so many kids have contributed, especially offensively,” Grant said after the win. “We don’t have guys that are going to lead the league in rushing, but we could if we gave one the ball all the time.”
Case in point: on Thursday against the Royals, the Eagles generated 361 yards of total offense, with 343 coming in the rushing game. Four players had 50 or more yards rushing.
Senior Terae Dunn, playing both ways in the secondary as well as at running back, led the Eagles with 92 yards on three carries, with 72 of that total coming on a third-quarter touchdown.
Behind Dunn, senior Hawken Hedlund, another two-way player, had nine carries for 58 yards.
Senior Liam Berndt had 15 carries for 57 yards; senior quarterback David Ivey had five for 51 yards, while junior Elijah Rumph neared the mid-century mark with 48 yards on 10 carries.
We often hear the term: spreading the ball around. The Eagles have mastered that concept throughout the season.
“And our quarterback played great tonight,” Grant added. “And he’s not gonna lead the league in passing, but he played great tonight. So, I just think we’ve got great balance and great kids that understand being selfless and wanting to win as a team.”
The same could be said for the Eden Prairie defensive unit, where tackles have been spread across the roster with uniform regularity.
Against Woodbury, senior defensive tackle Dennis Rahouski led the Eagles with six tackles in the win. Senior linebacker and co-captain Shaun Peterson was next with five. Juniors Vaughn Feely and Isaiah Hazecamp both had four, while Hedlund and seniors Dominic Heim and Mo Saine each had three, with numerous others contributing.
“We just stayed mentally focused,” Saine said after the game, which saw the defense allow Woodbury their first and only touchdown in the second quarter.
The Eagles shut down the Royals the rest of the way, allowing just 164 yards in total offense.
“We didn’t let one play get in the way of what we had planned,” Saine said. “It’s finish the season strong, 8-0, that’s something that we can be proud of.”
Woodbury’s only score, a 48-yard connection to go up 7-0 with 8:16 remaining in the first half, gave the Eagles a needed jolt.
“Woodbury’s the No. 2 seed, they’re a really good football team,” Grant said. “I don’t know that our kids were quite mentally ready, but they got there. And defensively, I thought played really well other than the one big play.”
The Eagles bounced back from the Royals’ touchdown on the ensuing series.
Junior running back Jeremy Fredericks, back in his first game since suffering an injury against Minnetonka on Oct. 5, capped off a 15-play, 76-yard drive with a 1-yard touchdown run to tie the game 7-7 with 1:33 remaining in the first half.
After a three-and-out by the Eagles’ defense, Eden Prairie got the ball back with 1:15 remaining before halftime.
An 8-yard punt by Woodbury gave the Eagles excellent field position at the Royals’ 24-yard line. Five plays later, Ivey found senior Vinny Dykstra on a 4-yard pass to give Eden Prairie its first lead of the game.
With Luca Ratkovich’s kick, the Eagles led 14-7 at the intermission.
“We just saw what the defense and how they were just holding up,” Rumph said of the Eagles’ ability to find their way against Woodbury in the latter stages of the first half. “And we just found a way to come through. We just kept pushing, and our O line came through clutch right there.”
Rumph is the Eagles’ leading rusher with 581 net yards on 100 carries this season, an average of 72.6 yards per game.
The junior had an illness during the week and didn’t practice the day before the game, but played through it on Thursday night.
“He’s been great,” Grant said. “I don’t think he felt good tonight at all. But he’s a special talent. And next year when he’s 20 pounds heavier, he’s gonna be a real beast. He’s a great player already.”
Along with Berndt and Fredericks, who have rushed for 464 and 415 yards, respectively, Rumph has been a constant for the Eagles this season, finding the open field and churning out yards with consistency.
But he’s more concerned with what will contribute to team success rather than individual statistics.
“First, it starts at practice having that mentality that we’re just going to come through and win every single game, blow a team out,” he said. “But in games like this, when it gets tough, we have to all come together and just take our time, take a deep breath and just keep going through. We can’t go through the motions.”
The only motion the Eagles went through in the third quarter were moves that brought them back to the end zone.
On their first offensive series, Fredericks scored his second touchdown of the night with another dive from the 1-yard line, putting the finishing touches on a 9-play, 72-yard drive.
After a Woodbury penalty on the point-after attempt, the Eagles went for two, with Heim scoring on the conversion, giving Eden Prairie a 22-7 lead.
Grant said the difference in the game ultimately was made when the Eagles’ veteran offensive line found their groove in the running game.
“Every game is a chess match in how they’re gonna line up,” Grant said. “The offense started to take control of the game and started blocking.”
Dunn broke loose on Eden Prairie’s next offensive series, racing 72 yards for a touchdown on the first play from scrimmage. The burst gave the Eagles full command of the game as the third quarter drew to a close.
“It was there all game,” Dunn said of the touchdown run. “So I was just trusting my guys to get those blocks and then they got them, so that’s what made the touchdown.”
Dunn, along with Heim, Hedlund, co-captain Will Sather and several others, has been playing both ways this season. Dunn has also brought his speed and acceleration to special teams, returning punts for the Eagles.
“I definitely have a big responsibility, so does everyone else,” Dunn said of playing all three phases. “But I feel like when you play both sides of the ball, and special teams, it’s a bigger game.”
With the victory, the Eagles ensure their No. 1 ranking and unblemished record heading into the playoffs.
Not surprisingly, Eden Prairie enters the first round of the sectionals as a No. 1 seed. They will host Osseo (0-8), a No. 8 seed, on Friday night.
“After the regular season, we think of it as a new season for playoffs,” Saine said. “So we’re 0-0 now. So stay focused, get through to get to state.”
Rumph maintains the team goal is nothing short of a state championship, but stressed the Eagles can’t afford to underestimate any opponent, regardless of the seed.
“We’re gonna keep treating every game like it was a state championship game,” he said. “We’re gonna practice like that, too. So I think that we have a very good squad and I think we can take it all the way.”
Grant, who has alluded to capturing a “special season” in recent weeks, took a moment after the victory to reflect on his team’s regular-season accomplishments before looking ahead to the playoffs.
“More than anything, you think about 8-0 and being undefeated,” he said. “And that’s a special season when you go through who we’ve played, and how many seeded teams and top teams in the state.
“And to go 8-0, that’s a real compliment to these kids.”
Editor’s note: EPLN photographer Rick Olson contributed to this story.
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