The energy is contagious, the passion palpable.
Familiar settings welcome a pair of former colleagues to first-year head coaching roles a few miles apart this fall, as Nick Rusin makes the move from Blaine assistant to head coach at hometown Coon Rapids, while Mike Law transitions from offensive coordinator to head coach for the Bengals.
Rusin’s path diverges slightly from Law’s. A few miles down the road. And back home.
The area native takes the reins for the Cardinals after spending six years on the Blaine staff, embracing an opportunity to give back by looking to build for better days ahead.
“For me, it was really just the Coon Rapids community,” Rusin said. “Having the opportunity to really expand the leadership in place here and impact the community. I grew up in Coon Rapids. It’s a community that really cares about its high school programs. Not just football, but really wants all the high school programs to be really successful.
“That ability to give back to this community is one that I’m really excited by. When I applied for this position, I heard how good the kids were, how good the staff was. The opportunity to expand the leadership and to impact a school, to impact the community, to give back, is one that I was really excited about.”
Rusin has observed, and worked first-hand for, one of the top football programs in the state in Blaine, just last fall helping the Bengals to an 11-1 record and trip to the Class 6A state semifinals. His tenure with Blaine provided a wealth of knowledge and experience he will look to incorporate into his first head coaching position.
“I wouldn’t be in this position without my time at Blaine,” Rusin said. “I was grateful and honored to spend the past six seasons at Blaine. It’s a great high school with a great football program. I was very fortunate to learn from some great leaders and head coaches that allowed me to be in this position.
“For me personally, the thing I’m looking to bring over is the level of excellence, the standard of what we want our program to be. Blaine has a standard of excellence and high expectations. I’m hoping to bring over some of the same strategy, bring over some of the organization, bring over some structure, bring over a sense of communication, bring in the passion and positivity. At the end of the day it’s about the players, these young men that we’re trying to develop. Ultimately we want to win, but we’re going to go about things the right way. We won’t cut any corners along the way.”
That focus on connection is at the heart of Rusin’s coaching drive and what he hopes to instill in the team’s players.
“As an educator, I’m most excited about the ability to impact the young adults to expand that leadership,” Rusin said. “For me, my personal experience, I had a great experience from my high school coaches. Being respectful and working hard and being a team player, and I just want to give that back to these young men to create a fun positive experience for everyone involved. I feel we have coaches on staff who believe in our vision. We want to win, but we also understand it’s about developing young men.
“As a first-year head coach, I’d be lying if I said there weren’t some things I was nervous about. The thing I’m most nervous about is about letting down the players in any way. We’re really striving to teach that every single person in our program is valued. I’m going to have to make decisions that might not be in favor of everyone, but is in the team. I don’t want to let people down from boosters, the community, youth, coaching staff, players. You want to be there for everyone.”
After a multiyear stretch without a win, Coon Rapids has won a combined eight games the past two seasons, hosting a playoff game each year.
Looking ahead, the door appears open for even greater possibilities.
“This program’s definitely taken steps in the right direction,” Rusin said. “For me it’s just to continue that and to create players who are leaders. Not just leaders on the football team, but in our school and community. Creating players who are mentally tough, who persevere through tough times and tough moments and will always be there for their teammates. I truly believe if we take care of the stuff off the field, the stuff on the field will take care of itself.
“These players have so much potential. It’s tapping into that potential, getting players to show up consistently, to buy into what we’re doing. I think our team is really doing that this year. I’m impressed with how hard they’ve worked and their commitment.”
Coon Rapids was scheduled to encounter a tough task to open the season Aug. 29, traveling to last year’s Class 5A state runner-up St. Thomas Academy.
On the year, the Cardinals will look to lean on their returning athleticism and leadership.
“We should be very skillful,” Rusin said. “We have a lot of depth at our skill positions. A lot of those boys play multiple sports, they’re fast, they’re quick. That team speed and athletic ability is one we’re really relying on that can be a really big asset throughout the season. Most of our defense is returning, so we’ll have a very veteran defensive team. Basically our whole secondary is back. Our linebacking corps is still in place. We have a couple defensive lineman that are back. Where we’re looking to rely on some new bodies to come in is that offensive line. We’re expecting to try to plug some new faces into there.”
Returning starters for the Cardinals include senior quarterback Jake Van Hulzen, junior defensive tackle Gavin Layton, senior linebacker Myles Taylor, senior linebacker Jordan Nolan, senior wide receiver Avont Shannon, senior cornerback Shy Williams, senior right tackle Chance Alexander, senior strong safety Ryan Kouri, senior center Jake Kouri, senior cornerback Joseph Tarnue and junior free safety Antonio Manos.
“We have a very talented senior class that we’re excited about,” Rusin said. “We’re excited about our captains (Jake VanHulzen, Myles Taylor, Jordan Nolan, Ryan Kouri and Chance Alexander). We have very skillful, great young men, so it might be high expectations, but we think we can compete for a section title and hopefully make a run.”
There are only 31 Class 6A programs in Minnesota. Of those, only a few can match the prestige of Blaine.
Pressure? Absolutely — a deep-rooted passion shared by followers of the program that Law, having spent four years on the staff, is familiar with. And embraces.
“The expectation is to always be pretty competitive here at Blaine,” Law said. “People care a lot about the football team. We don’t shy away from that, we like that and enjoy that aspect of our community.
“At the same time, at a place like Blaine, you’re always going to graduate some really good football players, and we had a lot last year. We only return a few guys, so we’re a staff that sees some young kids out there and understands it’s going to take some time.”
Law spent last season as the offensive coordinator for a team that scored 353 points, almost 30 per game, in an 11-1 season that reached U.S. Bank Stadium in the state semifinals.
“It’s been a whirlwind for me,” Law said. “In the last four years I’ve been on staff, I was surrounded by a lot of really good coaches and young men. Fast forward four years, to be in this position, I’m very fortunate and grateful for the opportunity.
“I think there are some positives and negatives (to the pressure). Expectations are high and as a staff, we want to hold that standard of doing things the right way that have been held for a long time at Blaine.”
On the defensive side, the Bengals allowed just 12.8 points per game last fall as well.
The challenge in maintaining that level of success and the program’s strong tradition is holding true to the values that have built it to where it is, while continually working to get better.
“I think for me it’s trying to pull all the great things that have allowed us to be so successful,” Law said. “I want to keep some of those things, but also be willing and able to make changes. There’s always a little better way to do things.
“We’re going to keep focusing on character development and player development. We want to keep a critical eye program wide as a staff and be able to make changes to improve.”
The position will be Law’s second as a head coach.
Before arriving at Blaine, Law served as a head coach in Oberlin, Ohio, having graduated from Oberlin College and spent three years on the collegiate staff.
“That job was very different,” Law said. “It was a smaller school. The community definitely cared about football, but it didn’t have the same support from the administration and the community in general that this does.
“I learned a lot of things about myself and as a coach and what I value. That’s the great thing about it here is, a lot of my values are aligned with this institution. It’s about relationships with the kids. It’s not just about football, it’s about developing great young men.”
Blaine was scheduled to kick off this season at Wayzata Aug. 29.
“I think the thing I’m most excited about is all of the kids who worked really hard in the offseason that have never played a meaningful varsity game on a Friday night, or a Thursday night,” Law said. “I’m just excited to get them on the field and experience that and get them seasoned a bit.”
Head coach (years with team): Rich Wilkie (18 years).
Returning starters/key contributors: Wilkie said: “Ethan Kalmes (senior quarterback) – started five games and is a solid run threat to go with the pass game; Cole Heppner (senior running back) - second in team in rushing; Ben Steckman (senior running back/wide receiver) - led our team in rushing and rushing TDs. Will play some wide receiver to use his outstanding speed. Broke our school record in the 40-yard dash with an electronic 4.61; Soumchi Tao (senior center) - started all 11 games; Agohogo Eyafe (junior wide receiver) - started all 11 games as a sophomore and led team in TDs; Vlado Duvnjak (senior wide receiver); Jack Sharon (senior linebacker) – leading returning tackler; and Daniel Daye (senior defensive back) - top pass defender in our conference.”
New players: Wilkie said: “Sam Musungu (freshman wide receiver) - we’ve never had a ninth-grader contribute in a varsity game, but Sam will be a really great player; Caden Wheeler (sophomore running back) - will be a reliable backup and solid special teams player; (and) Kollin Weikel (junior linebacker).”
Expectations: “We feel we have the overall team speed to win a section Championship and get back to the State Tournament in 2019,” Wilkie said.
Head coach (years with team): Brent Swaggert (14th year, 3rd as head coach)
Returning starters/key contributors: Swaggert said: “Trevor Patterson (quarterback) - great athlete, can throw and run; Wyatt Schroeder (wide receiver/tight end) - PWO for Gophers, returning all-district player; Aren Hjelm (offensive line) - returning all-district player; Hunter Dustman (punter/kicker) - three-time all-district, sixth-year starter, full scholarship commit to South Dakota State; Andrew Hoglund (linebacker) - three-year starter, tackling machine, returning all-district; Zach Bonte (outside linebacker) - physical and fast; Reed Pastwa (outside linebacker) - physical and smart; and Mike Wasche (defensive back) - fast and playmaker.”
New players: Junior wide receivers Austin Walvatne and Lucas Hess. “Quick, fast, great hands, playmaker(s),” Swaggert said.
Team strengths/Expectations: “Good returning skill players, back end of defense and wide receiver and quarterback,” Swaggert said. “Best-case scenario: compete for a district title and No. 1 section seed.”
Spring Lake Park
Head coach (years with team): John Stewart (2nd year as head coach).
Team captains: Zack Dunbar, Max Horn, Darius Robinson, Jacob Ward and Cyrinus George.
Returning starters/key contributors: Zack Dunbar (third-year starting quarterback); Brian Orellana-Lopez (returning 1,000 yard rusher); Marvin Lamin, Jacob Ward, Max Horn, Eric Amundson and Trey Toner – five out of six returning starters on the offensive line; Jesse Sills and Adam Clausen - returning secondary players; Cyrinus George – returning linebacker; and Kaleb Skelly – leading receiver in 2018.
Team strength(s): “Experience on offense, returning nine starters,” Stewart said.
New players: Nick Wetzel (wide receiver/running back), Blaine Cooper (linebacker) and Joey Sorenson (safety).
Expectations: “Compete,” Stewart said.
Head coach (years with team): Jeff Ferguson (since 2002).
Team captains: Andrew Christopherson (OLB); Joe Hinkle (OC); Ike Richards (DB/WR) and Alex Stephens (ILB).
Key returning starters/contributors: Captains, plus Kristoff Kowalkowski (QB); Sam Quick (DB/WR); Carson Wolla (DE); Patrick Doran (ILB/RB); Nick Hand (FS); Joe Alt (TE); Deezwin Cooper (RB/DB); Luke Delzer (RB); Luke Rooker (OT); and Patrick Finley (CB).
Team strength(s): “We have quite a few experienced players,” Ferguson said.
Season previews are compiled from coach submissions on a rolling basis. Previews received after press time will be included in next week’s issue.