Fruechte, Gophers winning against long odds
Players-only meetings can work. At least occasionally.
Minnesota football player and Caledonia High School graduate Isaac Fruechte is giving loads of credit to the gathering that took place shortly after Oct. 5.
Fruechte's team was coming off its second straight humbling loss to begin the Big Ten Conference season. After starting the year 4-0, all non-conference wins, Minnesota got buried by Iowa 23-7, then gave up a bunch of points late and was trounced by Michigan 42-13.
Gophers coach Jerry Kill missed the Michigan game after suffering a seizure, his second of the year, putting his status in limbo for the rest of the season.
And Minnesota's players? They were teetering, too, and maybe close to collapse.
It wasn't supposed to work this way. At least the Gophers players sure didn't think it would. They began the season believing this would be their break-through year. Kill had earned a considerable reputation for breathing life into dormant college football programs, with his third year at each stop bringing a large bounty. This was his third year with Minnesota.
Weren't ready to give up
But suddenly, those four non-conference wins — albeit against poor competition — suddenly didn't look like they meant much. Their confidence shaken, but their resolve still in tact, the Gophers players gathered. Upper-classmen such as Ra'Sheede Hageman, Aaron Hill, Zach Epping and Donnell Kirkwood took over the meeting, with sophomore quarterback Philip Nelson also playing a lead role.
There was no way that seniors Hageman and Hill were willing to go out like this, getting embarrassed in their final season. So they spoke up.
"All of those guys really stepped up at that meeting," said Fruechte, a starting junior receiver. "They talked about what we'd learned and been through together. They talked about things we needed to do better, and how we needed to be more positive and aggressive. There was just an understanding that we needed to change some things, get things accomplished, and compete."
They've spent every day since that meeting nailing those missions.
"We feel very good, very positive," Fruechte said. "We're coming to work every single day working hard and trying to get better and better."
Left for dead by most fans and observers, Minnesota has turned into one of college football's top stories. It's done it by winning all four games since that meeting, two of them on the road, starting with a 20-17 win at Northwestern.
Nobody — except maybe the players and their coaches — saw this coming.
"There were some small things here and there in those first two Big Ten games that we didn't do right," Fruechte said. "We felt like we always had good talent, but that there were some execution things that we needed to work on."
The cleaning up, the meeting, and the more focused play has led to the Gophers stretching their record to 4-2 in the Big Ten, 8-2 overall, cracking the top 25 in some polls, and even with a remote shot this late in the season of a Big Ten championship.
Making the story even better is that the man who Fruechte says is universally loved by his players — Kill — is back in the coaching fold, regaining his health, and approaching things with a kind of looseness and joy never quite seen before.
He's done that transforming while serving as the team's inspiration.
"Everyone on our team cares about (Kill)," Fruechte said. "The compassion he has for us, and the passion he has for football makes us want to play hard for him and his staff. We see what he goes through and what they go through. So we continue to just push harder and harder."
Now comes the most interesting test of the year. Minnesota plays host to powerful Wisconsin on Saturday, a team it hasn't beat since 2003.
Nobody favors the Gophers to break that streak Saturday. But if they do it, theirs will be the top college football story in the nation. Hands down.
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