By Ryan Schleicher – Sun Newspapers
Totino-Grace (13-0) captured the Class 5A championship by defeating Owatonna (12-1) in Prep Bowl XXXI at the Metrodome.
Totino-Grace proved why its number one ranking was no farce through a display of dominating football by scoring 35 unanswered points beating Owatonna 49-21 and propelling the Eagles to capture their ninth state title in school history and their seventh since 2003.
Apple Valley tried to shut down the Eagles in the first round of the state tournament with what had been a very explosive passing attack. The Eagles came prepared even without experiencing a potent passing opponent all season. Totino-Grace held Apple Valley to only one touchdown and a total of 198-yards through the air as they stomped Apple Valley 42-14.
Next in sight were the Bemidji Lumberjacks. Totino-Grace looked to continue its run throughout the playoffs as they headed indoors to the Metrodome. Bemidji found itself in a deep hole early and the Lumberjacks never found their way out of the woods.
The stage had been set. Owatonna with its win the night before meant that two teams were putting their undefeated records on the line in an effort to be crowned state champion.
Fans who piled in the Metrodome for the class 5A state championship game Saturday, Nov. 24, believed they were going to be treated to a nail-biter down as the Owatonna Huskies and Totino-Grace traded blows against one another.
A 32-yard touchdown pass from senior quarterback A.J. LaPanta to sophomore tight end Lance Benick sounded the opening salvo. Owatonna was not going to be outdone as they marched right back down the field and found the end zone on a 22-yard bullet from senior quarterback Colton Schock to senior tight end Mason Bloomquist.
Mason Kaliszewski put the Eagles right back in front when he scored a touchdown on a four-yard run to open the second quarter. Owatonna’s offense could not get anything going as they were forced off the field by the Eagles defense. An offense getting forced off the field is usually a sign of things to come but in this case it worked as a blessing in disguise.
Bloomquist forced LaPanta to fumble deep in Eagles territory, which was recovered by Owatonna. That set up a one-yard leap from Schock to knot up the score at 14 each, midway through the second quarter.
LaPanta rid himself of any bad vibes after fumbling by connecting with senior wide receiver Charlie Miller on a 49-yard touchdown pass giving Totino-Grace the lead once again going into halftime.
LaPanta and Miller were not done showcasing their abilities as they found one another again on a 65-yard touchdown pass to begin the third quarter. A long touchdown run of 43-yards by Kez Flomo and an 11-yard touchdown run by Kai Barber extended the Eagles score to 42-14 by the end of the third quarter.
A fourth quarter lead so big allowed Totino-Grace to begin and realize what this team was on the verge of doing — a team being overlooked at the beginning of the season to a team that shined as brightly as any before them.
Maturation set in for many of these players who played their best football throughout the playoffs, none more so than for quarterback A.J. LaPanta. He is a manager, preventing costly turnovers, and reading situations added another dynamic to his resume: playmaker.
LaPanta, who lost his grandfather the night the state tournament began, shone throughout the playoffs by showcasing his arm, his legs and most importantly his head. He made the right decisions, at the right time, and never took a forced situation, always allowing the game to come to him.
“We played our best football down the stretch,” said LaPanta, largely in part due to his maturation.
Miller rekindled his harmony with LaPanta as well during the playoffs after missing a few games during the regular season with a leg injury. Miller and LaPanta are best friends and have been dreaming of moments like the state tournament ever since they were young.
“Chemistry is easy to develop,” said Miller, when talking about what LaPanta would be thinking. “(It must have been) from all those years playing in the backyard.”
Ferguson was impressed with what he saw from Owatonna. “We knew they were a good team, (with the ability of) scoring a bunch of points and with two players who have Big Ten offers,” said Ferguson. With that said, it was Totino who ended up earning the championship and it is Ferguson’s feelings that say it best, “I believe it was our best effort on both sides of the ball.”