by Bob San
SUN PRESS NEWSPAPERS
Last season, the Maple Grove High football team enjoyed a banner season behind an explosive offense led by quarterback Blake Skaja, receiver Jake Wieneke and all-purpose back Brycen Wojta. The Crimson won the conference with an 8-0 record and lost to Minnetonka in the second round of the post-season. They finished 9-1 overall.
Skaja, Wojta and Weineke have graduated, leaving behind numerous school records. Third-year coach Matt Lombardi will be seeking to fill the void left by these outstanding offensive stars.
“We lost a ton of great skill with Jake Wieneke, Blake Skaja and Brycen Wojta all graduating, but I believe we have a chance to have a very good offensive line, and I am excited about our running backs,” Lombardi said.
However, the Crimson may not need as high scoring an offense this season because their defense looks formidable with many solid starters returning.
“I believe we have a chance to have a very good defense this year,” Lombardi said. “We have quite a few kids coming back and they are learning to play at the speed that is expected year to year.”
Senior all-conference inside linebacker Emmanuel Ehrich (6’1” 200) leads a talented group of returning starters. Last season, he finished with 114 tackles, set a school single game tackle record with 23 against Osseo and had three interceptions.
Maple Grove will have a veteran and tough linebacking group because it also welcomes back third-year senior outside linebacker Peder Olson (6’1” 200) and senior inside linebacker Gunnar Ayers (5’10” 205).
Other returning defensive starters are senior linemen Blake Whitecotton (6’ 195, three-year starter), Theo Frier (6’0 205, five sacks last year), junior cornerback Sam Franta (5’11” 165) and senior free safety Jake Engelken (6’2” 195), who had 40 tackles last year.
Offensively, the Crimson will be inexperienced at the skilled positions but they do welcome back several quality starters. Returning starters on offense are senior all-conference tightend Jake Sterling (6’5” 240), senior all-conference lineman Mitch Engel (6’1” 225), senior offensive lineman Kam Garlick (6’3” 250, a three-year starter), and senior fullback Tyler Coyne (6’1” 220) a strong lead blocker who scored one touchdown last year.
Newcomers who are expected to contribute include junior running back Clark Wieneke (6’0” 180), who had two kickoff return for touchdowns last year, senior running back Tahi Nomane (6’1” 205), senior offensive linemen Kolton Kitterman (6’3” 245, started two games last year), junior offensive lineman Ben Shoults (6’3” 255), senior wide receiver Brady Engelke (5’10, 175), junior free safety Adam Brant (6’1” 185), sophomore free safety Isaac Collins (5’9” 165) and senior defensive lineman Arnold Funyam (6’1” 220).
Lombardi feels his team is raw at the skilled positions but has some outstanding individual players to build around.
“I believe we have a few all-state caliber players,” he said. “Emmanuel Ehrich is a definite candidate, and so are Garlick, Engel, Sterling, Engelken and Olson.”
The Crimson will have to jell quickly because the conference looks to be as tough as ever.
“I believe there are some talented teams in the league this year,” Lombardi said. “In the North Division, every game is a tough game. Blaine has good kids coming back, Champlin Park is tough every year, Anoka had two very successful sophomore classes back to back, and Centennial is always well-coached and hard nosed. In the other half, there are some very talented teams. Osseo is great year in and year out. Andover has a very talented senior class that has had a ton of success throughout the summer and lower levels, and Elk River has a senior class that is very gifted. Totino Grace obviously is a state champ contender every year, so it will be a good year in the Northwest Suburban conference.”
The Crimson open the season against Armstrong at home Thursday, Aug. 29.
Contact Bob San at [email protected]