In the last five years, this has been Jared Essler’s main goal.
“Once you get to the Section Championship and beyond, everyone’s good. Everyone’s had a good season. You’ve made it this far, so anything can happen,” Essler told NWCT back in 2014, in the midst of this five-year run.
With every advantage Elk River High School has tonight – the two teams square off at 7 p.m. at the Buffalo High School Sports Complex – STMA has this: They’ve been here before. A lot. And they’ve lost to Maple Grove and, yes, Elk River. But their three wins have resulted in a pair of state semifinal appearances and, of course, last year’s State 5A Championship over St. Thomas Academy, the school’s very first in football.
This is a much different club than the one that was trounced in Elk River’s first home game of the season back. St. Michael-Albertville has a different quarterback in Marcus Krupke, who managed a perfect game for the Knights last week in a 31-7 trouncing of No. 3 St Cloud Tech. Krupke led the Knights to an early score and STMA, playing at home thanks to a regular season that saw just the one loss, never looked back.
The key, however, is junior Mitchell Kartes. And while it’s hard to put the emphasis of a game squarely on one teen-aged kid, Kartes makes STMA spin. The tailback carried the load in STMA’s championship win and hasn’t looked back, but he was admittedly “dinged up” in an Elk River game the team would like to forget.
Kartes had two interceptions in last week’s game and also rushed for more than 100 yards. He leads the team in touchdowns, and is the team’s rock on special teams as well.
He will need some help. STMA was man-handled on the line of scrimmage – both ways – in the last game against Elk River, which the Elks won 43-6. The offensive line paved the way for 440-plus yards for the Elks, something STMA’s defense can’t allow at Buffalo this Friday night.
“Getting off blocks, finding the gaps and finding the ball. Those are things you work on, you know, since you were in middle school. But it’s so important in a game against Elk River because they’re fundamentally sound,” Essler said.
The duo of Nick Rice and Sam Gibas, particularly, gave STMA fits. Rice had more than 200 yards on just 12 carries, and was huge in a 23-point quarter that turned a 0-0 game into a 23-0 halftime lead.
And the Knights will need to protect the football, something Essler preaches. A bad interception in the third quarter killed any hopes of an STMA second half comeback at Elk River. But in the latter part of the season, STMA has been sound, including last week’s game against Tech, where the Knights won the turnover battle 3-1.
“We’re a different team,” Kartes told Twin Cities media following the game against Tech, looking ahead to the Section Championship. “We need to put that one out of our minds and go into this one and have fun.”