Pat Leary wasn’t sure he’d heard the play call correctly, so he glanced around the huddle to see if any of his teammates were also having doubts.
The play, after all, was something the Rochester Lourdes football team hadn’t attempted in a game because, well, it never worked in practice.
So, Leary wondered, why are we trying this now? It’s third-and-23 from our own 35-yard line with less than a minute to go in a state championship game that’s tied 35-35 and feels every bit like the last team to have the ball is going to win.
“We’re in the huddle, I was a little worked up at the time and I wasn’t sure if I’d heard it right,” Leary, who was a sophomore receiver at the time, said. “We ran it in practice six, seven, eight times and hadn’t gotten it down yet.
“Then I started freaking out about what I was supposed to do. Noah (Hillman) gave me a look. He was chill, so I bought into that.”
Across from Leary, senior running back Carter Greguson was a bit surprised at the play call, but he also understood the situation the Eagles were facing, and figured it was as good a call as any at that point.
Much like his Lourdes teammates, Greguson had spent the week preparing for how hot it can be playing at U.S. Bank Stadium. After practicing outside in November-in-Minnesota weather, it was a shock to the players’ bodies to play the biggest game of their lives in the brand-new climate-controlled home of the Minnesota Vikings.
“Trying to prevent cramping is the biggest thing,” Greguson said. “All week you’re drinking water, Pedialyte, eating bananas. I drank a water bottle full of pickle juice at halftime. … That’s the first and last time I did that.”
Back in the huddle Leary was walking through the play in his mind, slowing it down.
The play had come to be known at Lourdes as “The Annexation of Puerto Rico,” a nod to a trick play in the 1994 youth football film “Little Giants.”
But this wasn’t a movie. It was a moment players on both sides of the field — Lourdes and St. Croix Lutheran — had dreamed about for most of their lives. Class AAA Prep Bowl. Game being shown live on state-wide TV. Tie score, 35-35, with 33 seconds to play in the fourth quarter.
Lourdes — traditionally a run-heavy team — facing a third-and-23, did not want to give the ball back to SCL’s high-powered offense.
“I came to the huddle and said ‘there’s no way we’re punting to these guys,’” Lourdes head coach Mike Kesler said. “I called the play and Hillman looked at me like ‘we’re running that?’ The (assistant) coaches about fell out of the box … it was a bit of a shock at first, then everyone reviewed their assignments.”
Hillman took the snap out of the shotgun. His line gave him a clean pocket and time to throw. He dropped a pass into the arms of Ed Caples, who was cutting across the 50-yard line from right to left. Three SCL defenders converged, thinking they’d stopped Lourdes 10 yards shy of a first down. But Leary timed it perfectly and cut behind Caples, who tossed the ball to him. Leary cut up the middle of the field, splitting two defenders and getting the first down.
“I just remembered I needed to get some space between me and Ed,” Leary said. “In practice I’d been coming over the middle too soon, so I’d already be past him when he caught it. I gave myself a few extra seconds, then caught the pitch from him.”
But Leary wanted more.
Greguson had been standing still, watching the play develop. When he realized it was working, he sprinted into the play, to Leary’s right, trailing him by a yard or two. As Leary was about to get tackled at the SCL 35, he flipped it to Greguson, who took it all the way down to the 5.
On the next play, Jake Groteboer bulldozed into the end zone with 25 seconds left, giving Lourdes a 42-35 lead.
Seconds later, Chol Angok forced and recovered a SCL fumble, securing the win for Lourdes and its fourth-ever state championship.
“First, you need the opportunity, so the fact I was in the position to make that play is something I’m thankful for,” Greguson said. “And it goes back to playing football with those guys for a long time. You dream of those opportunities and hope to be ready.”
A WINNING CULTURE
Those opportunities have come often for Lourdes over the past 15 years.
Since Kesler took over as head coach in 2005, the Eagles have gone to state 10 times, advanced to the Prep Bowl five times and won four state championships — in 2010, 2014, 2016 and 2018.
A winning culture was created right from the start and it has been passed down by senior class after senior class.
“It goes back to the philosophy that coach Kesler has always had,” said Lourdes assistant coach Nic Jensen, who was the quarterback on the Eagles’ 2010 championship team. “You look back at how many Division I players we’ve had come out of so many great seasons. It’s not very many, if there’s even one.
“We had those good players in every class, but we’ve never really had those big D1 stars. When you don’t have those kids, you have to get every player on the sideline to buy in and do their part.”
That attitude started long before Lourdes began collecting state championship trophies.
Kesler takes it back to 2005, his first season as head coach. Senior Kurt Lentz had waited to get his shot at being the starting quarterback, but he suffered a broken leg early in the year. Kesler could’ve found an athletic running back or receiver to move into that spot, but he called on an eighth-grader, Tyler Greguson.
“It’s my first year, my head’s spinning, then my senior captain gets a broken leg,” Kesler said. “We put in an eighth-grader. We had some alumni complaining ‘what? No one else in the school can hand it off?’ Long story short, that Saturday morning, we had seniors stand up and speak up and say ‘hey, Tyler is the guy and if you don’t think he can do it, you shouldn’t be here.’
“Yeah, we finished 2-7 that year, but that was a critical moment where our players had the mentality of ‘we don’t care who’s out there, we have your back.’”
The following season, with Tyler Greguson a grizzled veteran as just a freshman, Lourdes won 10 games and reached the state semifinals. The Eagles returned to state in 2007 and 2008, before losing to a powerful Kasson-Mantorville team in the 2009 Section 1AAA semifinals.
“It was pretty much a back-at-it-the-next-day mentality for us,” Jensen said of regrouping after the 2009 season ended. “A lot of guys who didn’t get noticed in our class took it upon themselves to get bigger and better. We knew we’d have a good squad in 2010. That was our shot.”
Jensen and his classmates took advantage, putting together one of the most dominant seasons in school history. Lourdes won every game by at least 14 points and trailed just once all season, when it fell behind 3-0 to K-M in the section semifinals. Lourdes came back to win that game 35-9.
“We were as together as you can get and that was the biggest thing we had going for us,” Jensen said. “We were playing for the guy next to us. When Adam (Lentz) scored, he’d go right to hug his linemen.”
Lentz broke the school career rushing record that season. Jensen excelled under center and players such as inside linebackers Shane McGrath and Alex Kapraun led the defense.
“The most competitive group we’ve ever had,” Kesler said. “They didn’t like to lose at anything.”
In 2010, Jensen, Lentz and Co. went 14-0 and rolled to the school’s first state title since 1979.
“That meant a lot to us,” Jensen said of snapping a 31-year drought. “There’s a lot of family and tradition at Lourdes. Aunts and uncles who went to school there, uncles who played there. A lot of our (coaching) staff played. A lot of hard work in those 30 years went into that championship and it resonated that day in the Metrodome.”
While generations of Lourdes alums cheered in the old hard-backed blue seats at the ‘Dome, so did a younger generation, junior high players who idolized Jensen and Lentz and their teammates.
“I don’t know if that (Lourdes culture) ever got talked about; it’s just something you learned from the older guys,” 2015 Lourdes grad Zach Hillman said. “The seniors my sophomore year did a good job of making us feel welcome and you just pass that along.”
Hillman’s class were sophomores the next time Lourdes reached the Prep Bowl, in 2012. The Eagles were 13-0 entering that game, but ran into a buzzsaw and lost 30-7 to Blue Earth Area.
The following year, 2013, Lourdes returned to state, and reached the semifinals before bowing to New London-Spicer 36-16. A photo was taken of the scoreboard at the end of that game, a photo that resurfaced a year later in Lourdes’ locker room when it met NL-S in the 2014 Prep Bowl.
ANOTHER MIRACLE FINISH
Lourdes earned a hefty helping of revenge in 2014, rolling past NL-S 35-14 to capture another state title. Carter Greguson and Zach Hillman both scored two touchdowns as the Eagles won their third-ever state title and second in four years.
The three-TD win allowed the Eagles to breathe easily in the second half, a week after another miraculous play kept their season alive.
The Eagles’ 2014 state semifinal game against Pierz was played at St. Cloud State University on a cold, snowy night, on a frozen, rock-hard field, in front of cold, nearly frozen fans in the bleachers.
It was a physically draining game, two punishing defenses doing all they could to wear the other side down. The game went to overtime, tied 17-17. Lourdes won the toss and elected to take the ball second. Pierz scored a touchdown on its first possession and kicked the PAT to take a 24-17 lead.
Lourdes answered with three straight runs by Zach Hillman, the last a 2-yard TD to pull the Eagles within 24-23.
“When (Pierz) scored, I said right away ‘if we score we’re going for two,” Kesler said.
Greguson added: “I was all for (going for two) because that game was a grind. It was so cold, the turf was frozen. … I was all for that, let’s go for two and win it now.”
“It was one of those things, toward the end of the game, I don’t think either team was able to stop the other very well,” Hillman said. “Hindsight is 20/20, but going for two seemed like the right call.”
It seemed like the right call until Greguson took the handoff from Noah Hillman and was stuffed at the line of scrimmage. The Pierz fans erupted while the Lourdes fans went silent.
But in that moment -- despite the cold, despite the pressure of the moment, despite two Pierz defenders wrapping him up -- Greguson had the presence of mind to remember what his coaches had said all year about two-point conversions.
“We’re always told, on a two-point conversion, to never go down with the ball,” Greguson said. “Nothing bad can happen, so just don’t go down with the ball.”
Greguson saw Noah Hillman standing near him, no defender around him. So Greguson flipped the ball in his direction. Hillman caught it and fell into the end zone.
Lourdes fans erupted. Pierz fans stared in disbelief. No one could believe it. Lourdes had won 25-24 to go back to the Prep Bowl.
A JUNGELS ATTACK
From the Stunner at St. Cloud in 2014 to the Annexation of Puerto Rico in 2016, opponents were learning to never count Lourdes out.
So when St. Croix Lutheran — the team Lourdes stunned in the 2016 Prep Bowl by converting a third-and-23 late in the game — dropped 61 points on the Eagles in the 2017 state quarterfinals, everyone was a bit shocked. Especially Lourdes players.
“We got beat up a bit,” Leary said of the 61-29 loss. “That was a very good football team, a lot of great athletes who ran their stuff very well.”
The blowout loss also lit a fire under the Eagles juniors, especially running back Zach Jungels, who wanted the ball in his hands more than he got it in Lourdes’ running back by committee offense.
“Zach wasn’t very happy after his junior year,” Kesler said. “He didn’t always like his role. Nobody outworked him that offseason. He was ornery and took it upon himself to get bigger, stronger and faster.
“And that’s what we saw in the (2018) Prep Bowl game. He was the best-conditioned athlete on the field.”
Fairmont hung around for most of three quarters in the 2018 title game, but Lourdes' defense never allowed the Cardinals to threaten. They scored their only TD 1:28 into the third quarter on a long passing play. But Ben Limburg kicked a 36-yard field goal six minutes later and Jungels scored two TDs in the fourth to ice Lourdes’ fifth state title, and fourth since 2010.
Jungels put up video game numbers, running 27 times for 233 yards and two TDs.
“Our freshman year, Zach was kind of a scrawny, short kid,” Leary said of Jungels. “As soon as he hit 15 or 16, Zach started going crazy in the weight room. He put on 25 pounds of muscle, knocked three- or four-tenths off his 40-(yard dash).
“Everything he didn’t have, he worked for in the weight room and you saw the finished product. We all fed off his energy.”
CREDIT TO COACHES
Between 2010 and 2018, Lourdes won four state titles, went to five Prep Bowls and compiled a 101-11 record. Kesler and long-time assistants Dave Jenson, Scott Nickels, John Jensen, John-Howard Carroll credit the players’ drive and desire to win. Talk to the players, though, and they’ll point out the common link among all of Lourdes’ successful teams.
“They care about you on and off the field,” Nic Jensen said of Lourdes' staff. “Coach Kesler has told stories of people calling him in the middle of the night, and he’s always there for them. You don’t find that in very many programs.”
“They take it a step further than being coaches -- and a lot of other guys would stand for this, too -- they would do anything for us, while we’re in the program and after,” Carter Greguson said. “The culture they created is something pretty special to be part of.”