SLEEPY EYE – In preparation for Saturday’s Class A semifinal game against Dawson-Boyd, the coaching staff of the Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s football team decided that in order for the players to be more prepared, they would have to get used to being up early for the 9 a.m. game.
The Knights held practice at 5:30 a.m. this week, showing that the whole team is willing to make sacrifices in order to have a chance to play for a state title.
Even though some high school-aged students would complain about getting up so early for practice, the Knights know that it’s necessary to get them ready for Saturday’s showdown.
“It’s a tough time to start, but last time we were there [at the Metrodome in 2011] we played early in the morning and we weren’t ready to go in the first quarter,” said St. Mary’s coach Brent Kucera. “We’re trying to correct that this year and to be honest, I’m actually really shocked of how well the guys are staying focused.
“There was really no hesitation, we said it’s what we’ve got to do, so they accepted it and it’s kind of neat because they get to learn a life lesson in being adults and getting up really early and go get your job done.”
The Knights (12-0) are back in the Metrodome, playing the Blackjacks (11-1) in a battle of Class A powers. It’s the school’s third-straight trip to state and fifth in school history. The Knights made it to the state semifinals two years ago and qualified for state last year, so this year’s team has a veteran approach to the game.
“Definitely, they’re so much more prepared for this year,” Kucera said. “They’re ready to play and they’re not just accepting of getting to state, they want the whole thing. Everybody left thinks they have a shot and we do too.”
Last Saturday, the Knights heavily relied on the ground game to beat Lester Prairie/Holy Trinity 20-14 in Marshall. Junior David Surprenant pounded the Bulldogs, finishing with 250 yards rushing and one touchdown.
Surprenant has 1,195 yards rushing for the Knights and 13 touchdowns. The running game also features quarterback Brandon Helget, who has rushed for 826 yards, and Jaden Wait, who has 519 yards rushing.
“It’s a huge weapon for us, because we have the opportunity to wear teams down and we have the line up front to wear them down,” Kucera said. “After a while, teams start keying on the running back and that’s where Brandon Helget gets the counter run the opposite way.”
Saturday’s game against LP/HT was another test for the Knights, who have managed to pass all of them this year. They defeated New Ulm Cathedral in triple overtime this year and defeated Wabasso, a team that played for the Section 5A championship against Dawson-Boyd a few weeks ago.
“It says a lot for our team, being prepared and with the bigger crowds, they’re just used to it,” Kucera said. “They accept it and they play hard every down.”
The Blackjacks were the 2011 state champions and this year they are led by a couple of running backs who have similar numbers. Dalton Palmer has 1,485 yards rushing and 19 touchdowns while Michael Anyasike has 1,234 yards and 14 touchdowns. Quartertback Joey Lee has thrown for 1,838 yards and 20 touchdowns and Michael Lee is the top receiver with 770 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns.
Kucera knows that the Section 5A champs will provide a great test for his team.
“They’re a good football team, they’ve got some size, they’ve got some athletes, they’re good all around,” Kucera said. “They’ll be a tough team for us, but we think with our physicality, that’ll keep us in the game.”
While the Blackjacks will give the Knights another good test, Kucera knows his group, which has played 12 playoff games in the past three years, is also battle-tested.
“We have a lot of guys that have started two or three years, so they’ve been through the ropes and they understand what’s going on,” Kucera said. “They’ve been through a lot of practices, we’re getting four more games a year than most teams do every season, so that pays dividends for the younger guys. We’re much more prepared this year.”