On Day One of practice for the 2017 high school football season, I chatted with four seniors from Elk River, the team that came out of nowhere last year, went unbeaten and claimed the Class 5A state championship, the first in the team’s 125-year history.
The first question I posed to Ronnie Audette, Mitch Stroh, Sherrod Kpahn and Reese Norby was very straightforward: Describe last season in one word.
Their answers: Incredible. Amazing. Surreal. Fantastic.
After finishing with a 5-5 record in 2015, last year’s Elks went 13-0, held seven opponents to seven points or less, won by an average score of 45-12 and defeated Spring Lake Park 42-14 in the Prep Bowl. Nine of their 13 games used running time.
“It was lightning in a bottle, it was nuts,” said Elks activities director Mike Cunningham, whose school’s girls basketball team won the Class 4A state title a few months later.
Nobody predicted the Elks’ 2016 football dominance, but the players knew they had a chance to be successful. Elk River sophomore teams were unbeaten in 2014 and 2015 (and did the same last year), so there was reason for optimism.
“We knew we had a lot of talent,” said Kpahn, a running back who carried the ball three times for 56 yards in the Prep Bowl, including a 50-yard touchdown. “We knew we had to stay disciplined and determined if we wanted to achieve the goal that we had.”
The eye-opener last season came in Week 4. Their opponent was St. Michael-Albertville, the 2015 5A state champ. Both teams came in with 3-0 records and the Elks came away with a resounding 43-6 victory. Elk River beat the Knights again in the Section 6 championship game, this time by a 56-0 score.
“The expectations were somewhat muted until we played them in Week 4,” said Elks coach Steve Hamilton. “After that, the coaches and players kept believing.
“It was the least stressful year I’ve ever had coaching. We were behind one time last year. We scored on our first drive, then Alexandria scored and went for two, so we were behind 8-7 (in the state quarterfinals). To be behind once in an entire year is pretty unheard of.”
This is a new year, of course, and the Elks have the proverbial target on their backs. They fully embrace that role.
“It makes you play harder,” said Kpahn. “Knowing that everyone is the state is gunning for you and wants to be in your position makes you practice harder. We play like No. 1 but we pratice like No. 2 at all times.”
Hamilton, a Michigan native who coached there and in Georgia, was hired as Elk River’s coach in 2011. With family ties in Minnesota, the job was easy to accept. And he steadily built the program with the help of his coaching staff and talented, committed athletes.
“Last year we had the best leadership I’ve ever been around, with a couple back-to-back classes that were really talented,” he said. “And the best thing about that group was 15 or 16 of those seniors had a 3.5 or above GPA. They were all great students.”
“The seniors really stepped up and led the team last year,” said Audette, a lineman.
Those are big shoes to fill, and the returning Elks are ready for that challenge.
“I think the biggest thing to replace is the relationships we had, the blend we had,” said quarterback/safety Mitch Stroh. “You couldn’t tell a junior from a senior last year. The relationship we need to create with the juniors this year is something we need to mirror.”
Guard/linebacker Reese Norby added, “Last year our team chemistry was really good. That’s something we need to repeat here if we want to do what we did last year.”
Chemistry and teamwork, of course, can be major factors in athletic success on any level. And that’s part of the formula for all sports at Elk River.
Cunningham said, “The biggest thing always is, ‘Are we doing the right thing for kids?’ In a coaches meeting I said, ‘What we expect out of all our coaches is our kids are going to leave our program better than when they came in.’ Sometimes you get championships and sometimes you don’t. But as long as they’re doing that, you’re doing the right thing.”
The Elks will open the season at home vs. Moorhead on Aug. 31. The expectations will be on a much different level than in past years.
“I think people are going to think because we had nine seniors on offense last year that maybe we won’t be real good,” Hamilton said. “Everybody got to play a lot last year. We have some youngsters, with 40 juniors this year and close to 70 players. Last year I think we had 72.
“I really like our group this year. In some ways we might be more talented than last year.”
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