Tigers eye third-consecutive state football appearance

By Matthew Davis
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Fridley has high expectations with a big senior class going into the new football season.

Fridley football has enjoyed section titles and trips to state the past two seasons. With a number of seniors back, the Tigers hope to make it a third consecutive year. (Sun Focus photo by Courtney Rathke)

The seniors have been part of two state tournament appearances by the Tigers in the past two years. They can add a third this fall.

“We have a strong senior class, filled with leaders that will help the team achieve maximum potential,” Tigers coach Justin Reese said.

Fridley has a dangerous two-way player returning in senior Nate Soto. A wide receiver and free safety, Soto had a team-high 700 yards receiving and eight touchdowns last season. He also had seven interceptions, also a team best. An all-district recipient, Soto has drawn NCAA Division II colleges’ interest.

Soto gets to catch passes from a familiar face in third-year starter and senior quarterback Noah Couwenhoven, who also has drawn Division II interest.

Couwenhoven, also an all-district recipient, threw for 1,500 yards passing and 17 TDs last year.

Couwenhoven will also have senior wide receiver Caleb Brandt catching passes. Brandt, an all-district recipient, caught six TDs and gained 416 yards in 2016.
Reese said Brandt’s a “playmaker on offense and defense.”

Brandt, also a strong safety, had a solid season in the defensive backfield last fall. He had 30 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and a sack.

Senior linebacker and running back Ben Zayzay, another two-way starter with all-district honors, had a team-high 101 tackles and five sacks last fall. He also picked up a couple fumbles.

Zayzay will be called upon to help fill the void in the rushing game left by 2017 graduate Prince Okolie. The former Tigers running back had 1,666 yards and 16 TDs last fall. Zayzay saw limited time on offense last season.

Fridley also lost Johnathan Arzola to graduation. Arzola had 49 tackles, a forced fumble and an interception last year. The former strong safety and wide receiver also had 360 yards receiving and three TDs. Reese said Arzola was a leader of the defense.

Despite a few key departures from graduation, Reese has confidence that the current seniors can have the Tigers build on last year’s 8-3 season and a Class 4A state quarterfinal appearance.

“Our team is led by a great group of seniors that will be a positive influence for our football program,” Reese said.

Fridley will open it season Aug. 31 at Minneapolis Southwest at 7:30 p.m. The Tigers routed the Lakers last fall 32-6.

Fridley’s schedule could get a little more challenging this fall with the district realignments by the MSHSL. The Tigers will play in the Twin City Maroon Sub District, which added SMB to the mix.

The co-op from St. Paul Academy, Minnehaha Academy and Blake hasn’t lost a regular season game in two years of existence. St. Croix Lutheran, the Maroon Sub District champion last year, will also pose a challenge for the Tigers.

“Going in to the sectional, we’ll be well-prepared to try to make another state run,” Reese said.

Come playoff time, the Tigers won’t see St. Paul Highland Park for a third-straight title came. The Scots moved out of Section 4 as St. Paul Como Park moved in.

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