Despite its proximity to the field at U.S. Bank Stadium, the Delta Sky Club – one of the venue’s most coveted luxury lounges – is a distinct departure from what most observers would envision for high school football.
A glass wall, lined with purple LED lights, allows spectators inhabiting the posh, field-level space to catch a glimpse of players exiting the playing surface.
After No. 1-ranked Eden Prairie’s shocking 28-7 loss to Edina in the state semifinals, head coach Mike Grant followed captains Will Sather and Shaun Peterson, as well as defensive back Terae Dunn, through the oversized hospitality suite on their way to the press room.
The scene felt as surreal as Edina’s stunning upset of the previously undefeated Eagles.
Not surprisingly, the players moved more quickly than their head coach, entering the press room ahead of him.
“I can’t walk as fast as you guys,” Grant could be heard saying outside the doors, musing, “I’m old.”
When Grant, who had just finished his 31st season at Eden Prairie and 45th overall as a head coach, sat down before the assembled media, he wasted no time summarizing the game that had just concluded.
“They just played really, really well,” he said. “I wish I could give excuses and say this or that. Our hats are off to Edina; they just played outstanding football. They tackled well, didn’t turn it over, ran the ball, all the things that we like to do.
“And then defensively, they were tough, they played very well. You know, we found a few things in the second half but you just got to tip your hat to Edina for playing as well as they did.”
To put the outcome into perspective, flashback to Sept. 8 and the second week of the season, when the Eagles trounced the Hornets 36-14, rolling up 350 yards of total offense while holding Edina to 229 yards.
That night marked the first of three straight losses for the Hornets, who fell to Minnetonka and Wayzata in the following two games, leaving many to write them off until they began stacking wins for the rest of the season.
In the weeks after their loss to Wayzata on Sept. 22, Edina has embarked on an eight-game winning streak, including their upset of the Eagles, earning the school its first state championship game appearance since Edina West won the title in 1978.
The Hornets (9-3) will face Centennial (11-1) in the Prep Bowl on Friday night.
“Sometimes those things happen.” Grant said. “I’ve had a long career. You think you’re gonna play super well and I give Edina all the credit for playing as well as they did.”
Eden Prairie had held opponents to an average of 217 yards of total offense this season leading up to the semifinal.
But Edina churned out 353 yards against the Eagles, with much of it coming from senior running back John Warpinski, who rushed for 192 yards on 36 carries.
“Every team has a good back and he’s pretty special,” Peterson said.
Edina was able to deliver a balanced attack on the heals of Warpinski’s production, which set the table for sophomore quarterback Mason West.
“(Warpinski) kind of pounded us, but the big thing was the big pass plays, because we actually lead in time of possession if that’s accurate up there,” Grant said, referring to the stats on the jumbo scoreboard. “The quarterback threw the ball really well tonight. In other games, he may have missed those, but they played great. That’s all we can say.”
West was 8-of-13 for 170 yards and three touchdowns. Receiver Sonny Villegas led the Hornets’ receivers, catching five passes for 79 yards and a touchdown.
The Eagles had averaged 353 yards in total offense coming into the game, but mustered only 213 yards in the semifinal game.
Even Eden Prairie’s highly-successful short-yardage “Eagle” unit struggled against Edina.
Facing a 4th-and-2 from the Edina 29-yard-line on their first offensive series, the Eagles failed to convert when fullback Dominic Heim was stopped a yard short.
Grant said that series shifted momentum in the first quarter, but still liked the decision to go for it on fourth down.
“We always play to win. I always play to win it,” he said. “We’ve always done it.”
Edina took over on downs and began a 10-play, 72-yard drive, culminating with West connecting with Villegas from 11 yards out to open the scoring.
The Hornets picked off two passes on the next two series. The second interception gave West an opportunity to find receiver William Carlson for a 20-yard scoring strike and a 14-0 lead with 4:35 remaining in the second quarter.
Said Grant, “with their passing attack and those outstanding receivers, they put a lot of pressure on you because you’ve got to bring more people in the box to try and stop the run and that gives you some one-on-ones on the outside and they were able to convert those tonight.”
The Eagles failed to convert on another fourth down with 2:42 remaining in the first half, giving Edina the ball at the Eagles’ 38-yard-line.
Eden Prairie, a team that has won by establishing their running game and wearing down opponents with their sizable offensive line, never found traction to generate rushing yards.
“I’m not sure exactly what’s going on every play but their D-line played well,” Sather said. “We’ve just got to tip our caps to them. They played really hard and we didn’t play hard enough as an O line.”
Edina took advantage of the short field before halftime. George McIntyre ran in from three yards out, giving the Hornets a 21-0 halftime lead.
It was a deficit that no player on the Eden Prairie roster had ever experienced.
“I don’t think there was any sense of panic,” Grant said. “They understood we’ve just got to play harder and better. I would like to have had a drive to start the half right, but we didn’t get it and again, Edina just played that well.”
The Hornets scored again in the third quarter to take a 28-0 lead, before the Eagles managed their only touchdown on a 13-yard run from junior Jeremy Fredericks with 3:21 remaining in the third quarter.
But with their ball-control style offense, it was difficult for the Eagles to play from multiple scores behind. The passing game was ineffective, with Edina knowing Eden Prairie had to generate points in short order.
As the second half moved on, it was clear the Hornets’ lead had become too large to overcome.
“Tonight was a game I didn’t see going this way; the lopsidedness of the score probably was more to me than anything,” assistant coach Titus Bates said. “Edina’s a good team. They’ve worked hard over these weeks, and they have a nice streak going. So hey, hats off to them. They came to play tonight.”
With the game over, players embraced one another before leaving the field. Emotions were raw as the finality of the season’s end descended with sudden force.
Grant gathered his team in the east end zone and shared some wisdom that comes from four and a half decades of coaching.
“If this is the worst thing that happens in your life, you’re going to have a great life,” he told them.
In the aftermath, the two co-captains were late getting to the locker room, having attended the postgame press conference.
Grant’s message resonated with them both, not just following the game but over the course of many seasons.
“There’s so many things I’m gonna take away,” Sather said. “The No. 1 thing is just being a man for others. That’s what Coach Grant has instilled in me and all my teammates since I got in this program as a kid. And just the bonds I’ve made with some of these guys.”
For his fellow captain, the realization that the end was upon them stung more than the actual outcome of the game.
“I think it’s more the disappointment of just knowing that I don’t get to go to practice with these guys for another week,” Peterson said. “I look forward to coming to practice every day. And football season is the highlight of my year, every year.
“It was just so much fun. And now it’s over.”
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