Football: Ponies host Blaine in season opener

After scrimmaging three teams on Saturday that finished last season ranked among the state’s top 10, the Stillwater football team opens the season against reigning state semifinalist Blaine at the newly renovated Stillwater Area High School stadium on Thursday, Aug. 31.

Stillwater finished with a 5-4 record last season and opens the 2017 campaign against a program that has given the Ponies fits since their inaugural meeting in 1987. The Bengals, who finished 9-3 a year ago, own a 14-2 record against Stillwater. Blaine has won six in a row in the series, including a 36-14 triumph in their most recent meeting in 2003.

The Ponies jumped right into the fire while facing Lakeville North, Maple Grove and defending state champion Totino-Grace in their scrimmage. After a slow start against the host Crimson, Stillwater showed positive improvement throughout the day, according to head coach Beau LaBore.

“We have a lot of lessons to learn from and a lot of film to learn from,” the coach said. “We started slow offensively and did some things better and better as the day went on. Our third scrimmage left us looking forward to practicing and getting better on offense.

“Our defense was consistent and feisty, which was good to see because you don’t really go live enough in practice to see that come out. To see them tussling with Maple Grove and Totino-Grace and Lakeville North was a positive sign. The biggest thing is we have a bunch of film that shows a bunch of areas we need to make some basic or significant improvements on and it’s helpful to be able to show those things to our players so that they can take ownership and make it better.”

The Bengals return quarterback Connor Melton and his favorite target Byron Bynum, Jr., along with two starters on the left side of the offensive line. Blaine, which was stopped by eventual state champion Totino-Grace 21-20 in the state semifinals last fall, also returns three starters on defense.

“They’ve got some key pieces back from state semifinal run last year,” LaBore said. “They have a good number of starters back, some of which are in key positions, from a state semifinal team, which makes them formidable right out of the gates. They’ve got some great experiences in their team having made that run.

“They play a lot like White Bear Lake, a wide-open spread offense. They throw the wide receiver screens as effectively as anybody I’ve seen, period. That can open up some things for them in the run game and over the top throwing. It’s going to be a huge challenge for our outside linebackers, corners and safeties to be able to play the field left to right and short to long.”

Last year marked Blaine’s 12th state tournament appearance, but first since 2010. The Bengals claimed their only state championship in 1988 to go along with four runner-up finishes (1996, 1997, 2001 and 2008). Stillwater, meanwhile, has captured four state championships (1975, 1982, 1984 and 1995) in 20 state tournament appearances, but has not qualified for state since 2006.

“Blaine was really a difficult match up for Stillwater in the 80s and 90s and they unfortunately knocked us out of some pretty big games in the state playoffs and conference championship type games,” LaBore said. “That is something we’re aware of and it would be nice to tilt that the other way, but we’re most concerned with taking where we are at and making improvements at each position and each team on both sides of the ball.”

Stillwater enters the season with more varsity experience on offense, but is hoping for more consistency than was on display in the scrimmages.

“We have the ability to become a real good offensive team, but we’ve got a long ways to go,” LaBore said. “Our biggest focus is to give all our guys opportunities. We keep things pretty basic and want to see how our kids do in our base offense and base defense. We want to see who gets out of their stance, who brings the shoulder pads and who can tackle. We try to keep it real basic in what we’re trying to evaluate and take care of the basics in our scrimmage. Overall, it was effective in identifying areas that need improvement, areas that need surgery and a couple areas that just need some polishing.”

Each of Stillwater’s first three games are at home and the program is excited about the improved game experience that will result from the many upgrades that have taken place since a year ago with a construction zone just beyond the north end zone.

“Having the constant chaos of construction and eminent change became tiresome,” LaBore admitted. “Everybody is looking forward to getting back into some sort of routine and the ends have totally justified the means. We had a very impressive stadium two years ago, but now with the artificial turf surface, the entrance, permanent ticket booths, permanent concession stands and permanent bathrooms and overall aesthetics and performance of the stadium, we think we’ve got the best place to be any Friday night in Minnesota. Now it’s our job to go out there and put a football product out there that matches it.”

— Stuart Groskreutz

Parking enforcement

Fans attending Stillwater’s season-opening football game will notice some changes from previous years with regard to the state entrance, admission area, restrooms and concession stands.

Anyone parking on the backside of SAHS to the east of the stadium should be aware that no parking is allowed along the areas featuring yellow paint. The areas where parking is allowed are designated by white paint.

According to SAHS Activities Director Ricky Michel, the Oak Park Heights police department indicated it will issue citations to violators in order to keep fire lanes clear of vehicles.