Wildcats are optimistic, realistic about 2017 season

‘Nothing to lose, everything to gain’ after going 0-9 last year

Note: eighth and final installment of a series previewing high school football teams in the Sun Thisweek and Dakota County Tribune coverage area.

Eagan’s players don’t need to be reminded that the varsity football team didn’t win a game last season. They’re also acutely aware of what even one victory would do to change the program’s direction.

Captains Ben Leiran (left), Kaden Hanson and Mason West will lead Eagan in 2017. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy

“We have nothing to lose and everything to gain,” said senior captain Kaden Hanson, who’s expected to be the Wildcats’ starting quarterback. “One win would be greater than last year. If we beat Minnetonka (7 p.m. Thursday at Minnetonka High School), there’s going to be a lot of hype coming. That would be a huge morale booster for our team and the whole program.”

Eagan was 0-9 last season with eight of the losses by 16 points or more. This year, Hanson and fellow captains Ben Leiran and Mason West say the Wildcats are a more unified team with players that have a chance to make a difference. They also have a better understanding of what second-year head coach Ben Hanson and his assistants expect of them.

The coaches bring a large speaker to practices and pump hip-hop music through it. Ben Hanson said it’s just a way to help the players have fun and keep them engaged. The captains say there’s a little more to it than that.

“The speaker’s there to keep people energetic. The practices have been at a much faster pace,” Kaden Hanson said.

“In the fourth quarter, people are going to be tired but they’ll be used to it from practice,” West said.

The Wildcats won’t be deep, and a run of injuries could cause big problems. They could use more help on the line, where they have some quality athletes but are short on numbers. “Fat guys. We need fat guys,” Ben Hanson said, only half joking.

“We’ll have guys playing both ways. I think a lot of teams on our schedule are in the same situation, although I don’t think Minnetonka is one of them. I think our guys are embracing the challenge.”

Multi-tasking has become important, said Leiran, a returning lineman. “Everybody knows two positions, at least …” Leiran said before taking out the needle.

“Besides our quarterback,” Leiran added, drawing chuckles from his fellow captains. “And with that comes a lot more conditioning. If you’re not on first team, you’re scouting. It’s two hours of hard work every time we come out here” for practice.

Chad Mattson, Jack Rauchwarter, Drew Allred, Cody Smith and Abdu Seef are among the linemen who suited up on varsity last season.

West is a linebacker on defense and tight end on offense. “Our linebackers, we’re been together for a long time throughout high school,” he said. “Our D-line is a group of mean kids, so I think defensively we’ll show out this year.”

Senior Eisley Nkwonta is likely to have the ball in his hands a lot this season after an off-season of work in the weight room. “He might play running back or slot receiver. He’s really versatile, so that’ll be a big help,” West said.

Kaden Hanson said he expects to throw frequently to senior receiver Jake Tauer, another player who made big strides in the off-season.

The Wildcats played Eden Prairie, East Ridge and Rochester Century in a scrimmage last Saturday at Eden Prairie. Eden Prairie has won 10 state large-school championships in the last 21 years, and East Ridge was in the Prep Bowl in 2015. After struggling early, they looked much better later in the scrimmage, Leiran said.

The captains said they haven’t set a specific number of victories as a goal. They just want to be in a position to win more often than they were last season.

“After last year, with every opponent we face, we’re fighting for that win,” Leiran said. “Wins and losses, I don’t know what that looks like for the season, but we’re just going to try to work hard every single week.”

Said West: “Last year, toward the end of the season, people gave up. We just have to fight through that. If we lose one, heck, come back and we might get the next one.”

Eagan football
(Games at 7 p.m. Friday unless noted)
Aug. 31 (Thur.): at Minnetonka
Sept. 8: Lakeville South
Sept. 15: Rosemount
Sept. 22: at Shakopee
Sept. 29: at Farmington
Oct. 6: at Prior Lake
Oct. 13: Wayzata
Oct. 18 (Wed.): Lakeville North