by Eric Oslund
The expectations for the 2017 Elk River football team – dubbed Team 126 – were set for them long before they even knew who all would take the field opening day. They were set on Nov. 26, 2016, the day their predecessors defeated Spring Lake Park 42-14 in the Prep Bowl, going undefeated on the season and bringing the Elk River football program its first state title.
Is it fair to compare on season to the next in high school football? Probably not, the turnover from one year to another is always great, but the comparisons between Team 126 and 125 will likely remain all season long.
It’s a lot for these players to live up to as Elk River put up unbelievable numbers all throughout 2016, and while the 2017 players try not to think about it themselves, they know the pressure is there.
“Obviously there is. You’d be oblivious if you didn’t see the weight and the pressure,” senior quarterback and captain Mitch Stroh said. “It’s just something we have to deal with. We just have to keep playing. We know what it took, so we know what to replicate, and us older guys are trying to push the younger guys to model what happened last year.”
Even when the Elks were heading into their 2017 season opener against Moorhead, everyone talked about how Moorhead gave Team 125 the most trouble in the regular season a year ago, looking forward to seeing how Team 126 would handle the Spuds.
And when the Spuds took a two-possession lead over the Elks, you could hear some mention how it was different from the way things looked on the field a year ago. But this year’s Elks didn’t back down. The barred down, and got the job done, winning their first game of the season by a score of 44-31.
It may not have always been as pretty as the games a year ago were, where they usually ended with running time, but this year’s group of Elks will have a harder go of things. Team 125 was a relative unknown heading into the season, not drawing the state-wide recognition they ended the year with until after Week 4 when they defeated St. Michael-Albertville 43-6 and were named the No. 1 team in the state.
But this season, every team in Class 5A wants to be the ones to knock of the defending state champions. Team 126 will be given the best of every team they face week in and week out, but they are OK with that, and actually seem to relish the challenge.
“Coach always reminds us that we always have a target on our back,” junior running back A.J. Nordenstrom said. “We’re always that (team) that people, if we get knocked off it’s going to make their season, so we just have to come out here and work hard. Then wins will just come to us if we just do our best and come together as a team.”
Team 126 is different from Team 125, there is no way around it. They are younger, less experienced, and will have everyone in the state gunning for them from the start of the season. But if their Week 1 victory over Moorhead proved anything, they have the same grit and determination that everyone got used to seeing in Team 125.
And after getting a win in Week 1, this new group of Elks feels ready to take on anyone that decides to challenge them.
“We really battled and it was a really hard-fought win, and it was really good to come out on top,” Stroh said. “Going into next week we have a lot of momentum, a lot of guys have confidence, and it’s tough to open up with a team like that, but we did it. Did it to the best of our abilities and now we have all the momentum in the world going into Week 2.”