The Wright Call

By Dave Wright

Football coaches are notoriously hard to please. In a game in which there are roughly 150 plays, it’s not hard to find one where somebody misses a block or a tackle. So when the season opener is won by a wide margin, the coach needs to handle his players judiciously. It’s a fine line between enjoying success and pointing out where something needs to be fixed.

“Winning is a byproduct,” said Highland Park coach Jonathan Brown, whose team rolled over Minneapolis Southwest 32-0 in the season opener on September 1.

The Scots haven’t enjoyed a lot of success on the gridiron in recent years. They won just once in the shortened 2020 season and went 3-7 last year, including a 37-12 loss to Southwest. So it was understandable for the Scots to get excited when they sprinted to a 26-0 lead in the first half of their victory over the Lakers.

“We didn’t play as smart in the second half,” Brown said. “We lost a little focus, but you need to remember these kids aren’t used to winning a lot.”

However, Brown made it clear that he wasn’t being critical of his troops. “Let’s be happy with what we did. I don’t look for negatives,” he said. “I just wanted them to know that if they want to get better, they need to stay on top.”

As Mike Scanlan used to note with his Cretin-Derham Hall teams, a high school football season can seem like a sprint. There are just 48 days from the first game to the last. That doesn’t leave a lot of time to celebrate wins or mope about losses. Brown, in his third season at the helm of the Scots, knows that all too well. “The aim is to maximize potential,” he said.

 

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Highland Park was part of a triumvirate of football teams that tied for first place in the Saint Paul City Conference in 2009. There was a solo title in 2004 and another three-way tie in 1971. That’s it for success in 58 years of football for the Scots.

History belongs to the archivists, and Brown wants this current bunch of Scots to make their own history. To do so, he readily admits will be a process. Athletic ability is certainly part of it, but it also takes a mentality to shake off making miscues and be ready to pounce when other teams make their own.

Thus, while the coach was pleased with the outcome of the season opener, he needed to remind his charges they can always do better. “It’s a great thing when you can learn how to handle success,” he said.

“We didn’t play as smart in the second half,” Brown said. “We lost a little focus, but you need to remember these kids aren’t used to winning a lot.”

A couple of miles away at Saint Thomas Academy, head coach Dan O’Brien was dealing with a different problem. The Cadets have been a prep football power for quite a while now, and they got a lot of preseason ink this year as a contender for the Prep Bowl in Class AAAAA.

There was a lot to be satisfied with in their season-opening 42-7 win at South Saint Paul on September 1. After all, this was a team the Cadets struggled with last year before pulling away for an 18-6 victory. When you jump out to a 35-0 halftime lead and end up with nearly 400 yards of offense, it would be logical to think happy days are here again in Mendota Heights.

Indeed, O’Brien found a lot of positives in the opener. “We ran the ball well. We threw it well,” he said. “The kicking game was very good.”

Specifically, he was happy with junior placekicker Declan Wilson, who also plays soccer at STA. “He kicked the extra points well and kicked off deep,” O’Brien said. Wilson also narrowly missed a 42-yard field goal.

Then again, not everything was roses for STA. “We lost the turnover battle,” O’Brien said. “There were penalties we shouldn’t have taken. You hope it won’t happen, but you expect some first-game mistakes. We still have a few things to clean up.”

O’Brien often emphasizes that just about every game the Cadets play is a rivalry of sorts. Last weekend, for example, was a trip to neighboring Two Rivers. On September 16, Cretin-Derham Hall comes to the STA campus for the first time in two decades. “It’ll be wild,” O’Brien conceded of the longstanding rivalry between the Cadets and the Raiders. “I’ll have to remind the kids it’s just one game. It helps that we played them last year (a 41-14 STA win).”

Local lad makes it to the Big Show

Mark McKenzie was Louie Varland’s baseball coach for four seasons at Concordia University-Saint Paul. Varland’s older brother, Gus, was already a pitcher at CSP when Louie was a senior pitcher at North Saint Paul and looking at colleges.

“He actually wanted to go somewhere else to compete against Gus,” McKenzie recalled. “When Louie decided to come here, I was told he had a better arm than his brother, but he didn’t throw strikes.”

McKenzie and his staff went to work on the mechanics for both hurlers. By the time the Varlands were done, CSP had advanced to two NSIC championship games.

Gus was drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers and has worked his way up the chain to AA ball. Unfortunately for Gus, the Dodgers’ system is loaded with great arms and he may need to look elsewhere to break into the major leagues.

Louie was drafted by the Twins in 2019. The 24-year-old Saint Paul native overcame an arm issue and worked his way up the minor league ladder to CHS Field this summer to hurl for the AAA Saints. On September 7, he took a bigger step, taking the mound at Yankee Stadium against the powerful Bronx Bombers.

When a coach sees one of his proteges get that far, he assumes the role of a proud papa.

“They’re both such hard workers,” McKenzie said of the Varland brothers. “They come from good stock.”

Before the game, McKenzie checked in with an old pal, Kent Hrbek, to see if he had any words of advice for Louie. “Herbie said to tell him it’s just baseball,” McKenzie said. “Just enjoy it.”

As it developed, Varland made his MLB debut in front of a mostly empty Yankee Stadium. Thanks to a rainout the night before, Varland went to work at 3 p.m. in the first game of a doubleheader. He struck out Aaron Judge in the first inning and worked as if he was still hurling at Concordia’s Barnes Field. “He looked very loose and relaxed out there,” McKenzie said.

Varland’s second encounter with Judge didn’t go so well when Judge hit his 55th home run of the year. Undeterred, Varland went to 3-0 on the next batter, but responded with seven strikes in a row to end the inning.

What was noticeable was there was no dawdling on the mound. “He was used to the 20-second clock in the minors,” McKenzie said. “It was fun to watch.”

Minnesota had a 3-1 lead when Varland went out to the mound for the sixth inning. After giving up a single, he struck out Oswaldo Cabrera, his seventh victim of the day.

What happened next was predictable. Varland wasn’t given a third shot at Judge, giving way to reliever Griffin Jax. Two batters later, Gleyber Torres hit a laser shot for a home run to tie the game, thus ruining Varland’s chance for a win in his debut. The Twins eventually lost 5-4 in 12 innings, but it didn’t matter. For Varland, it was a day to remember.

“I’m glad it’s over because there was a lot of anxiety, but it all worked out,” he told reporters afterward. “I couldn’t really feel my legs against the first batter. After that first out, though, things kind of went back to normal.”

Dave Wright can be reached at dwright53@msn.com.

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