All the towering lights – with the exception of two – had been turned off at Aerie Stadium on Friday night, following the Eden Prairie Eagles’ 42-14 dismantling of Eagan in the section finals of the 6A football playoffs.
The site of the Eagles’ resounding win was left with a few spots of illumination, mixed with contrasting shadows on the clear November evening.
Head coach Mike Grant had already delivered his post-game talk, telling his players he was “awful proud” of their effort as they had “four more quarters down, with 12 to go” in their quest for a state championship.
With their victory over the Wildcats, the Eagles advance to the state quarterfinal round Friday night.
Most of the Eden Prairie players had already made their way inside the school to the locker room, leaving just a few remaining on the field, mingling with family and friends in what is always a festive Friday night tradition after home games.
One player in particular was seen jogging off the field, but stopped near the track at the northwest corner of the stadium. He turned and took one last look at the place where he had started – and won – 18 games over his three-year varsity career.
“I was pretty fired up to play my final game here. I’m a little emotional about it to be honest,” senior co-captain Will Sather said moments after the game. “This is my 18th start here now and I’m blessed to say we won all 18 games here, which is pretty cool.”
Sather – and his teammates along the Eagles’ offensive line – had reason to be fired up after adding to the gaudy yardage totals Eden Prairie has enjoyed this season.
The production comes much in part to the core group up front, opening holes for the likes of running backs Liam Berndt, Jeremy Fredericks, Elijah Rumph and quarterback David Ivey.
The Eagles generated 355 yards of total offense against Eagan, 265 on the ground.
“I think it was one of our best performances,” senior tackle Ethan Sims said. “Our O line as a whole really brought it tonight, just physically we brought it. We had very few mistakes and that’s what matters in the game.”
Sims and Sather, along with Hayden Broich, Patrick Ruhlin, and Yuvraj Sidhu, have carved out daylight for ball carriers not only this season but for years. Their familiarity has created a close-knit unit, with each player trusting one another.
“We’ve been playing together for our whole lives. We’re all best friends, so we all have that cohesion together,” Broich said. “It just makes us really good because we know what we have to do. Everyone knows their job and we can hold each other accountable, so it just makes us better.”
You need not look further than the bottom of Friday night’s stat sheet to gauge their performance: zero penalties, zero sacks, zero turnovers, and zero punts.
Minimizing mistakes and maximizing performance requires an effort from the entire team, but it starts with discipline up front.
“I’m proud of the guys,” Sather said. “We’re a really close group of guys; we’re all seniors and we’ve been playing together for a long time and I thought we did play pretty well tonight.”
As they have all season, the offense took advantage of the line play early.
The Eagles dialed up some creativity with a double-reverse pass on their first series, with Ivey – back from an injury last week – finding senior Vinny Dykstra on a 28-yard strike to open the scoring.
Senior Luca Ratkovich, perfect on his PATs with help from holder Zander Hemmesch, booted the first of four extra points for a 7-0 lead.
“We’ve been practicing (the double-reverse pass) a lot this week,” Ivey said. “And we figured it’d be good because we saw on film their safeties coming down. So I threw it out there, and it worked out well.”
The Eden Prairie defense created more opportunities to put points on the board, as junior linebacker James Anderson forced and recovered a fumble on the following series.
The Eagles took full advantage, covering 41 yards in five plays.
Ivey raced around the left side to find the edge, cruising 20 yards to the end zone for a 14-0 Eden Prairie lead with 3:09 remaining in the first quarter.
“There were three or four black jerseys and only a couple of the white ones. So I figured they could block them and I could get in there,” Ivey said.
The senior quarterback went 6-for-11 for 90 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for two scores in the win, rushing for 39 yards on four carries.
In the second quarter, Eagan went on a 15-play, 72-yard drive, leading to a 1-yard touchdown run to draw within seven.
“They create problems because they run the option very well,” Grant said. “And they do a lot of good things.”
After Eagan’s touchdown with just over seven minutes remaining in the half, Sather gathered his offensive teammates on the sideline and promised they would get two more scores before the first half was over.
On the ensuing offensive series, the Eagles stalled on the Eagan 36-yard line, when Ivey’s fourth-down pass to tight end Dennis Rahouski fell incomplete.
Eagan took possession, but it wouldn’t last long.
The Eagles defense forced a fumble on the Wildcats first play from scrimmage. Eden Prairie’s Aaron Kroese scooped up the ball and returned it to the Eagan 12-yard line with 4:35 remaining in the half.
“I thought we had a really good game (defensively),” Eagles co-captain and linebacker Shaun Peterson said. “They ran an option offense just like Shakopee did, and I think we handled it a lot better this time. We just had guys making some great plays, and we were able to stand strong through the whole game.”
The Eagles capitalized on Kroese’s fumble recovery when Fredericks, who led Eden Prairie with 85 yards on 14 carries, dove in from the 1-yard line to restore the two-touchdown lead.
“That’s always the mentality,” Sims said. “We’re always thinking ahead. We’ve got to keep scoring. We’ve got to keep moving the ball, get the momentum that we had.”
The Eagles defense stopped Eagan on the next series, giving the offense the ball on the Eden Prairie 34-yard line with 1:19 remaining in the half.
On a third-and-10, Ivey scampered 16 yards to midfield.
On the next two plays, Ivey made consecutive completions to senior Terae Dunn for 25 and 15 yards, respectively, and the Eagles found themselves with first-and-10 at the Eagan 12-yard line.
Three plays later, senior fullback Dominic Heim bulldozed his way in from the 5-yard line, while Ivey found Dykstra for the 2-point conversion to give the Eagles a 28-7 lead at the half.
Sather’s vow to come away with two scores before halftime had come to fruition.
“(Sather) is a great leader. He’s been doing this and starting for three years,” Grant said. “So he knows what he’s talking about. And people follow him. We don’t spend a lot of time on drives with under a minute, but our kids executed pretty well.”
In the second half, the Eagles shut down Eagan’s option offense. Heim led Eden Prairie with eight tackles, senior Will Diana had five, while five players had four tackles apiece.
The defense held the Wildcats to 225 total yards for the game.
“We just stood strong on the outside,” Peterson said. “The guys had to do their jobs and we made plays when they needed to.”
Meanwhile, Ivey led the offense, scoring from a yard out in the third quarter and finding senior Tate Westin for an 11-yard touchdown pass in the fourth.
“Offensively, we were going on all cylinders tonight,” Grant said. “We made some misses, but we didn’t punt and we just kept scoring.”
Of their eight offensive possessions, the Eagles scored six touchdowns. They missed on the fourth-down conversion in the first half and ended their final possession when time expired to end the game.
The punt team never saw the field.
“We just want to be scoring every drive,” Broich said. “We start to make big plays, and we just really start dominating.”
With their win, the Eagles (10-0) advance to play Lakeville North (9-1) in the state quarterfinals on a neutral site at Spring Lake Park.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. on Friday.
“A lot of people think they’re the second best team,” Grant said. “So we’re gonna have to play well. They kind of look like us and want to run the ball and play power ball, and we’ve played it many times in the playoffs. So we know each other well.”
After the game, Grant told his team he’d be taking his first practice off in 45 years of coaching to go hunting with his family.
He gave his players permission to do the same over the weekend.
“I haven’t spent a lot of time with my sons this fall,” Grant said. “They’re gonna be up there, my wife’s gonna be there, and I’ve got good assistants that can handle films.”
The coach, like his players, recognizes that sometimes it’s good to appreciate life away from the game – as well as the moments on the field.
“We made a lot of memories on this field,” he said after his final game at Aerie Stadium. “And you know, that’ll definitely be one I remember for sure.”
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