Friday nights at South St. Paul’s Ettinger Field have always been special. The football stadium is an historical throwback, with bleachers that have been in place since they were built as a Works Progress Administration project in the 1930s and a playing surface nestled down inside a grassy bowl.
Before the South St. Paul Packers met Mahtomedi on Friday, South St. Paul native and highly decorated coach Paul Miller talked about the history of the place. The area was once a farming area known as “Swede Hollow,” said Miller, a former Packers head coach and current assistant who also has coached at Hamline, St. Olaf, Apple Valley, Burnsville and elsewhere.
So we began with history. Add to the mix a game that had major implications on the Classic Suburban Conference race as well as the upcoming Class 4A, Section 3 playoffs, and Friday was a recipe for wonderful memories. Sure enough, anybody who was at Ettinger Field on Friday will never forget it … for several reasons, including a power outage, another perfect night for football, a rock ‘em-sock ‘em back and forth game and the rise of a football program.
That program on the rise is South St. Paul. In the three seasons ending in 2008, the Packers had a combined record of 3-24. They went 7-4 last season, lending credence to the efforts of head coach Chad Sexauer and his staff. Friday’s 28-17 victory over Mahtomedi moved the undefeated Packers up another level, marking them as a team to be reckoned with in the conversation of 4A state championship contenders.
THE PACKERS’ STARS were many. Junior running back Sam Sura had already made headlines while piling up yards this season, and Friday he rushed 39 times for 210 yards, giving him 1,363 yards in seven games. Mahtomedi’s Brenton Braddock, another 1,000-yard rusher, was injured in the first half and did not return, which surely put a dent in the hopes of the Zephyrs, who lost for the second time this year.
Two other South St. Paul juniors also had big nights: Reid Bjorklund intercepted two passes, returning one for a touchdown, and quarterback Harrison Rund ran for two TDs.
Rund, who played tailback a year ago, moved to quarterback when expected returning starter Adam Wilcox – who has committed to play hockey for the University of Minnesota – departed to play junior hockey. Rund adds an extra dimension to Sura’s pounding runs behind a big, mobile offensive line.
“We asked Harrison to step into a difficult situation and he’s handled himself extremely, extremely well,” Sexauer said. “Tonight he came out and made a statement that we’re at least a two-headed monster.”
THE GAME STARTED 45 minutes late due to a power outage in the area around the school. And that delay only added to the memories. The South St. Paul pep band was in fabulous form, entertaining the big crowd throughout the delay. The school mascot -- a kid in a big red smiling steer costume -- is one of the best in Minnesota, and the steer added to the festive atmosphere even as darkness enveloped everything and everybody.
The only big downside to the power outage was that pregame Senior Night activities were cancelled and the seniors and their parents were not able to be introduced.
The teams waited inside the school, which might have been a positive for the Packers.
“It actually may have been kind of a good thing for us, to let us cool our nerves a little bit,” Sexauer said. “We were out in pregame, we were a little excited and a little animated. I think it gave us some time to relax and put us back into a regular focus.”
Mahtomedi led 17-6 at halftime behind two TD runs by Andrew Lindquist and a 31-yard field goal by Colin Johnson as the half ended. But all the scoring in the second half was by the Packers, with Rund getting two TDs and Jacob Schwantes scoring one.
After the game ended and the teams shook hands, the Packers gathered in front of those ancient bleachers – filled with the faithful – and everyone sang the school song in raucous celebration.
“This senior class, they were 0-9 as sophomores,” said Sexauer (pictured at right). “We’ve asked the world of them and they’ve kept producing. There’s a nice junior class that’s behind them and pushing, and the whole school is falling in with where these kids are. It’s nice community support, lots of enthusiasm.
“This is a game where we said if we want to be compared as a program to Mahtomedi and St. Thomas Academy and all those great schools, these are the types of games you’ve got to come out and play.”
They played, they won and anyone who was there will never forget it.
TO SEE A PHOTO gallery and video of the postgame celebration, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 64
*Miles John has driven: 3,968
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