Eagles bring experienced lineup to new schedule

Apple Valley to play mostly Class 5A teams in regular season

Note: fourth in a series of previews of high school football teams in the Sun Thisweek and Dakota County Tribune coverage area.

A glance at the schedule suggests Apple Valley’s new football reality is complete.

Apple Valley captains Riley Hansen (left), Kellen McKeag and Spencer Rolland want to lead the Eagles back to the state Class 5A playoffs. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy

Gone from the regular season lineup are teams such as Prior Lake, Lakeville North and, perhaps most notably, the three other District 196 teams – Eagan, Eastview and Rosemount. In their place are schools closer to Apple Valley’s enrollment, such as Bloomington Jefferson, Park of Cottage Grove and Hastings.

In 2012, the Eagles moved from the largest enrollment class to the second largest for the postseason, even though they continued to play the biggest schools in the South Suburban Conference. When the advent of district football scheduling essentially blew up previous conference alignments, it appeared to be just a matter of time before the Eagles’ regular-season schedule changed, too.

That day is here. Apple Valley is scheduled to play only one Class 6A school this season – Hopkins, the opponent in the Eagles’ home and season opener at 7 p.m. Thursday. The rest are in Class 5A, where the Eagles will be for the postseason.

“It’s too bad we don’t get to play Eastview in the Battle for the Apple game anymore,” said Eagles senior lineman Riley Hansen. “That was the most fun week of the season. And the kids at Rosemount, Eastview and Eagan are the ones we played in eighth and ninth grade.”

But, Hansen added, the schedule is out of the players’ hands, and they still have goals to achieve. One is to return to the state playoffs and strive for a better ending. The Eagles finished 7-4 last season after losing 28-24 to Owatonna in the Class 5A quarterfinals on a Hail Mary touchdown pass in the final minute.

A number of Eagles players also were on the team last year and remember how that felt.

“We have a big group of returning seniors,” coach Chad Clendening said. “They’ve played a lot of football and are bringing the younger kids along. We also think we have quite a few juniors and sophomores who are up-and-coming players.”

The Eagles have a large, experienced group of linemen. Hansen and senior Spencer Rolland, who has committed to play football at Harvard University, will begin their third season as starters. Seniors Jon Erickson and Logan Wangerin also are returning starters. Several of them also are likely to see some duty on defense.

Seniors Luke Martens and Nathan Macho could give Apple Valley one of the metro area’s best receiving duos. Despite missing several games because of a leg injury, Martens was the Eagles’ leader in receptions and receiving yardage last season. He had 11 catches for 160 yards and five touchdowns in a 42-41 victory over Eastview.

Kellen McKeag, a senior, is likely to play running back, and senior Tyler Cardella could see time there as well.

Cardella also is a candidate to start at quarterback, as are senior Tre Reinertson and sophomore Noah Halmar. All are seeking to take over for Noah Sanders, now at North Dakota State, who set Apple Valley single-season records for passing yardage and touchdown passes.

The Eagles will need somebody who can get the ball to their talented receivers. Sanders could push the ball downfield, whereas this year “it might look a little different,” Clendening said. “It might be a little more horizontal, but we’re looking for someone to get the ball to our receivers in space.”

“We lost some good players from last year, but we still think we can take a step forward,” Rolland said. “We have experience, especially on the line, and we have younger guys with talent.”

Senior linebacker Justin Firpo returns as one of the Eagles’ top defensive players. Jackson Green, another senior, also returns at linebacker. Josh Arnold is a two-year starter at cornerback and Ethan Thomas has started every game at safety the last two years.

“Ethan can do a lot of things,” Clendening said. “We’re looking for him to have a great season.”

Like most Class 5A schools, the Eagles can’t afford a rash of injuries, but Clendening said the depth is better than it has been in recent seasons. As a group, they also have had a history of success.

“These are guys I’ve been playing with for a few years,” McKeag said. “They’ve won a lot of games in basketball and football. When I was a ninth-grader, I think our two ninth-grade teams were 15-0 in football. There are a lot of guys here that are ready to compete.”

Apple Valley is working with Eastview High School to look for ways to continue the Battle for the Apple fundraising element, which benefited cancer research, even if the varsity football teams won’t meet at least in the near future. As for the schedule changes, Clendening is philosophical.

“It’s unfortunate we won’t be playing teams that have been traditional rivals for us, but on the other hand the schedule we have now probably is a better fit for our enrollment,” he said. “It won’t stop these kids from trying to play their best.”

Apple Valley football
(Games at 7 p.m. Friday unless noted)
Aug. 31 (Thur.): Hopkins
Sept. 8: at St. Thomas Academy
Sept. 15: at Bloomington Jefferson
Sept. 22: Park of Cottage Grove
Sept. 29: Chaska
Oct. 6: at Bloomington Kennedy
Oct. 13: Hastings
Oct. 18 (Wed.): at Henry Sibley