by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
No Elk River football team ever faced a more daunting opponent to open the season than the 2013 team will deal with on Thursday evening.
Suburban mega-school Eden Prairie’s team is so powerful year after year that the state high school league has to fill out their non-conference schedule because few schools are masochistic enough to take them on voluntarily.
This year’s edition of the Eagles, who’ll host the Elks at 7 p.m., is reputedly as good as any in their history, which includes two straight state championships and eight in the last 17 years, with a 229-24 record in coach Mike Grant’s 21 years at the helm.
“All I know is what I read in the Star-Tribune, and he’s saying this could be the best he’s ever had,” said Elk coach Steve Hamilton. “It’s tough to tell from watching them scrimmage, when they rotate so many people in and out, but I know they are very big and they have lots of numbers.”
The Elks and their fans will experience what big-league high school football is like.
Eden Prairie plays at Aerie Stadium, the name referring to birds roosting. The district actually has three artificial turf fields: Aerie, a practice field, and a field with a removable dome. Aerie Stadium seats up to 7,500 and there’s plenty of standing room, so crowds can reach 10,000 for the big games, according to Greg Kleven, a sportswriter for the local paper there. For the Elks-Eagles opener there’ll be competition from the State Fair plus the Vikings and Gophers both being on TV, but six to seven thousand will likely attend, he said. Parking is plentiful, he added.
The Eagles’ big threats are tight end Zach Hovey (6-5, 225), power runners Dan Fischer (6-0, 210) and Anthony Anderson (6-2, 225) and speedy Charlie Venable (5-8, 165). The formidable offensive line is led by tackles Robert Olson (6-5, 265) and Eric Dunn (6-4, 280).
Grant plays as many as a hundred kids in games where the Eagles are way ahead, which is often, said Kleven.
The Elks will be rotating players a lot, too, said Hamilton, even though their roster of 57 is about half of Eden Prairie’s. The temperature is forecast for low 90’s and the turf makes it a lot hotter.
“That can wear you out in the second half, like against Blaine last year,” said Hamilton, referring to a game where the Elks had a good first half and faded against a team with a much larger roster.
Elk River’s six-team scrimmage at Chisago Lakes went well, the coach said. The Elks are coming off a 6-6 season in which they won a section championship.
Austin Larson, one of three Elk quarterbacks who played well last year and the only one back, will take the snaps. He’s a running threat along with Denis Bardashevskiy, who broke the team rushing record last year. Hamilton said other backs have looked good as well. The offense will operate behind a solid, veteran line.
The Elks also have Totino-Grace, winner of ten state titles in the next-to-highest class, on the schedule, a conference game in the fifth week.
“As long as we can stay healthy, playing teams like this will pay off in the long run,” said Hamilton. “When you get to sections, nobody should be able to intimidate you after that.”