by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Facing potentially one of the best prep football teams in Minnesota history, the Elk River Elks can at least say they they landed the first punch.
In their 2013 opener, the Elks momentarily had the Eden Prairie Eagles on their heels Thursday night. Denis Bardashevskiy dashed 46 and 19 yards on the Elks’ first two plays, and Austin Larson dived for a three-yard touchdown.
“I think, after that, Eden Prairie said, Oh, okay, it’s time to play ball now,” said Elk coach Steve Hamilton.
The top-ranked, two-time defending state champion Eagles pummeled the Elks 56-17 at Aerie Stadium, rumbling to a 56-7 lead before letting the bulk of their 112-player roster see action. They rushed for a staggering 578 yards.
“We knew that coming in, this would be a struggle,” said Hamilton. “When a team has eight state championships, and they’re saying this might be their best team, well, they are pretty good.”
The Elks were able to experience what’s as close to a big-league atmosphere as you’ll see at the high school level, with not only a supremely talented opponent and a top-notch turf surface in a 7,000-plus capacity stadium, but also a newly-installed scoreboard with a jumbo screen that showed the game live with replays.
Such is football fever at EPHS that the Eagles had three large groups of cheerleaders (in red, black, and white). The black-skirted group high-kicked each new point total and were up to 56 kicks for the last touchdown.
The rare chance to play in such a setting was “a very good experience,” said Larson, the Elk senior quarterback who had the TD plus a 30-yard field goal.
“We got to find out what the best team in the state looks like,” said Larson. “We’ll be ready for whatever comes our way next week.”
Asked what impressed him about Eden Prairie, he said, “They hit hard, they come off the ball hard, and they execute their plays really well.”
Rugged game took toll on Elks
While the lopsided loss was expected, the Elks hoped to get through the game unscathed, and were not able that either. Hamilton said two players had concussions, and one a possible one injury, all of them two-way starters, whom he declined to name at this point.
“There are benefits to taking the field against a team like Eden Prairie, but if you come out of a game like this beat up, too, well, that’s really tough,” he said. “You don’t want this to cost you another game, too. That’s what can happen when you play a team that’s so tough and physical.”
Eagle coach has Elk connection
It turns out Eden Prairie coach Mike Grant, who notched his 230th win against 24 losses, has an Elk River connection, which he was happy to point out when the Star News approached him.
“I student-taught at Elk River in 1979,” he related. “I had a great experience there. I have very fond memories. I got to know Terry McLean (longtime Elk football coach). I was there in the spring. I helped coach softball.”
Grant’s teams blow out a great many opponents, but take none lightly, he said.
“We had a lot of respect for Elk River. We watched their highlights from last year, on You Tube, and we know they have a good back, good quarterback, and big O-line. We prepared for Elk River. We prepare just as hard for every team we play.”
Great opening drive for Elks
The Elks had a great start as Bardashevskiy bolted 46 and 19 yards back-to-back, perching the Elks at the Eagle 11. Three plays later Larson dived over from three yards out and booted the extra point.
Ahead of the top-ranked, defending state champs 7-0!
“That was a blast,” said Larson. “After that, Eden Prairie switched fronts, and we didn’t adjust.”
Said Grant: “We switched to Plan B, because Plan A wasn’t going to work.”
Reality sets in
Eden Prairie shook it off and quickly seized control, starting with a 60-yard bomb from Ryan Connelly to Gamiel Hall on their second play from scrimmage, their only pass of the evening.
The Eagles botched the extra point kick, but forced an Elk punt and took the lead with a 40-yard touchdown by Anthony Anderson, high-stepping 235-pound fullback.
And the rout was on. The Eagles rambled for 568 ground yards, most of that in the first 2 1/2 quarters in building a 56-7 lead, including touchdowns of 32, 10 and 45 yards by Charlie Venable, a 56-yard TD by Matt Liebold, and their longest gainer, 74 yards by Dan Fisher that set up a touchdown. They also had a 45-yard punt return for a score by J.D. Spielman.
The Elks were stuffed the rest of the game until the waning minutes when the benches were cleared. Down 56-10, the Elks had a 53-yard run by Ryan Osberg and 24-yarder by Devell Miller, leading to Miller’s two-yard touchdown with 1:53 left.
The Elks will host Centennial in their Northwest Suburban Conference opener next Friday.