Until Saturday I had never been to a football game at Chaska High School. In fact, I don’t recall ever watching a Chaska football team play anywhere – home or road -- in all my years of covering high school sports in Minnesota.
And there was probably a simple reason for that: Chaska has not been known as a football power. This season, however, that has changed in a big way.
The Hawks defeated Northfield 28-0 Saturday in the Class 5A Section 2 playoff semifinals, and they will host Mankato West on Friday with the winner advancing to the state tournament. Chaska has played in the state football tourney exactly once, and that was in 1974 (the Hawks were the Class A runner-up).
That’s a pretty long dry spell, but the 2013 Hawks look like they are up to the task of creating more history. They are 9-0 and ranked second in 5A behind Owatonna. Fifth-ranked Mankato West, which beat Chanhassen 33-22 Saturday, has lost only once this season, a 24-21 Week 3 defeat against Owatonna in a game that ended with the Huskies kicking a field goal on the final play.
The ascension of Chaska to the upper ranks of Class 5A lends credence to something I’ve been saying all season: 5A is the most interesting and most balanced class in football this season. Eden Prairie is the head-and-shoulders favorite to win the Class 6A state title, but 5A is anybody’s guess with teams like Owatonna, Chaska, No. 3 Brainerd, No. 4 Rogers (all are unbeaten) and others in the mix.
Lambert Brown was hired as Chaska’s head coach four years ago. The 2000 graduate of White Bear Lake High School was an assistant at White Bear and the head coach at Fridley before going to Chaska. He took over a football program that had gone 5-4 in 2004 and 2005 and didn’t have another winning record until last season.
Brown's first two teams had records of 4-6 and 1-8 before the Hawks kicked it up a notch with a 6-4 finish a year ago. The players who were in ninth grade when he arrived are now seniors, and that’s part of the formula that is coming to fruition.
“I think we’ve always had great kids,” Brown (pictured) said after Saturday’s game. “There have been kids here who I’ve enjoyed coaching, that work hard. More than anything, I think you look at the kids who are seniors now, and our staff has had them since they were freshmen, and they believe in our philosophy.
“We’ve been preaching the same things and it takes a special group to say, ‘We’re going to buy in to what you’re doing, and we’re going to make this part of who we are, and it’s not just for show.’ And they have really done that and they’ve come together and they play hard.”
The Hawks are not known for flashiness; they are more of a work-ethic team, with discipline, teamwork and preparation playing big roles in their success. They took advantage of five Northfield turnovers and field position in Saturday’s win; Kolby Seiffert ran for touchdowns of 5 and 56 yards in the first quarter, Justin Arnold threw to Brandon Thies for a 22-yard score in the third quarter and Matthew Witthus scored on a 4-yard run for the final points. The second and fourth touchdowns were set up by interceptions.
Speaking of flashiness, you should see Chaska’s uniforms. The Hawks could almost be mistaken for the Oregon Ducks. They have three different jerseys (a yellowish-gold that they wore Saturday, along with purple and white) as well as wings painted on their helmets and sprouting from their shoulders. It’s a great look, especially when it's in conjuction with a quality team.
“We’ve tried to keep our expectations pretty high, and we found that our kids have the ability to rise to those things,” Brown said. “A lot of the kids have had a lot of experience and they’ve gained a lot of knowledge of the game and how to play it. We kind of went into this hoping to keep this clicking, thinking if we could keep from having injuries and if we could get the guys to buy into our philoshophy we were going to do pretty well.
“I feel pretty dang lucky to be here, to be able to coach the kids I get to coach every day. Life is good.”
--To see a photo gallery from the Chaska-Northfield game, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited:105
*Miles John has driven in the Toyota Camry: 4,516
(*During the 2013-14 school year)
Follow John on Twitter: @MSHSLjohn