The game plan for the Class 1A defending state champion Minneota Vikings on Saturday was pretty simple: Run the ball, eat the clock, score touchdowns … and keep Minneapolis North quarterback and future University of Minnesota player Tyler Johnson on the defensive side of the ball at safety.
When the Polars did possess the ball, Minneota’s defense needed to contain Johnson, who is as dynamic on his feet, as well as throwing the ball, as anyone in the state.
The Vikings’ offense has been powered for two seasons by senior Garrett Hennen, a 6-foot, 220-pound wrecking ball who came in with a school-record 2,056 rushing yards in 13 games. Hennen is also Minneota’s leading tackler, so his defensive headlights would be aimed at Johnson. (Hennen is the fellow wearing number 34 on the cover of the state football tournament program.)
The Hennen-centric plans went kablooey before seven minutes had been played. After Garrett assisted Hunter Gillund in tackling Johnson, he grabbed his left knee. And that was it for him in the Prep Bowl. He was helped to the bench, examined and tried to put weight on the leg. The tire was flat, Garrett was given crutches, ice was strapped to his knee, his shoulder pads came off and now what?
Observing all this from the Minneota sideline was a gentleman named Byron Higgin. Byron is the publisher, editor, reporter, photographer, sportswriter, sales staff and Mr. Everything for the Minneota Mascot newspaper. As with small-town newspaper and radio coverage all over the state, Byron’s stories and photos document history in Minneota, including the exploits of the Vikings teams.
After Hennen left the game, Minneota assistant coach Matt Buysse walked up to Byron and said: “He’s been carrying us for two years. Now it’s our turn to carry him.”
There. That was the answer to “now what?” It was time to pick each other up. As Garrett’s cousin Kyle Hennen said after the Vikings’ 35-18 victory, “We came together strong as a team.”
There’s a lesson in this. A lesson in staying calm. Stepping up. Hanging in there. Coming together. Strong.
Minneota is no stranger to high-level football. The Vikings have now played in three consecutive Prep Bowls; they were a state runner-up in 2013 and won it all last season. They also won state championships in 1986, 1987, 1988 and 2009. Some of the boys from those teams in the 1980s are now watching their sons wear blue and gold. They went 14-0 this season.
Minneapolis North is a newer entrant to postseason runs. The Polars lost to Dawson-Boyd in the state semifinals last year and put together a masterful 12-0 season before facing Minneota.
Johnson was Johnson on Saturday, running 17 times for 186 yards and touchdowns of 64 and eight yards. He completed 11 of 23 passes for 109 yards with two interceptions. Tyler hit Isaac Johnson on a picturesque 34-yard hookup in the first quarter, and Tyler’s 64-yard magic show put the Polars ahead 12-7.
The Hennen boys – senior Kyle and sophomore Isaac (Garrett’s brother) – along with senior Bryce Bruner, sophomore Alex Pohlen and a stellar offensive line, never pushed the panic button on offense. Minneota had scoring drives that lasted eight minutes, 10 minutes and 11 minutes; goal achieved.
Bruner carried the ball 17 times for 107 yards and a touchdown, Isaac Hennen ran 24 times for 103 yards and three scores, and Pohlen completed nine of 12 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown to Kyle Hennen.
It was an emotional end to a memorable season for the Vikings. Coach Chad Johnston worked to compose himself before meeting the media. He sat with Kyle and Isaac Hennen in the interview room, talking about the great athleticism of Tyler Johnson and how they prepared for him
It turns out that one of the younger members of the coaching staff played the role of Johnson in practice all week; a guy who could run and change gears and cut and skedaddle all over the field. Guy by the name of Matt Buysse.
CLASS 3A: PIERZ 36, JACKSON COUNTRY CENTRAL 8
Noah Boser scored three touchdowns and Aaron Weber passed for two as the Pioneers completed a 13-0 season. Pierz scored on a 75-yard pass from Weber to Michael Meyer before the Huskies (10-3) took an 8-7 lead on a 37-yard hookup from Easton Bahr to Ryan Salzwedel. Pierz did all the scoring after that.
CLASS 5A: ST. MICHAEL-ALBERTVILLE 28, ST. THOMAS ACADEMY 21
br>The Knights (12-1) broke away from a 14-14 with touchdowns in the third and fourth quarters to win the first state football championship in school history. Mitchell Kartes scored on two one-yard runs; the first score tied it 14-14 and the second gave the Knights a 28-14 lead early in the fourth quarter. St. Thomas Academy finished with a 12-2 record.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has seen/visited: 266
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry in 2015-16: 5,793
*Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn