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Traditionally rugged Prior Lake spreads offensive wings

September 6, 2018

Prior Lakes first offensive play this season started from its own 2-yard line at Shakopee and ended in disaster.

This after coach Matt Gegenheimer, who in 13 seasons elevated the Lakers into a perennial top-10 team through strong defense and a run-heavy offense, went a different direction by hiring Mark Esch as his offensive coordinator in February. Eschs wide-open spread attack won two Prep Bowl titles at Mankato West and Gegenheimer believed such a scheme would mesh with Prior Lakes growing stable of skill players and increase the Lakers potency.

Summer practices offered promise. So as quarterback Colin OConnor, his three receivers and veteran running back took the field Thursday evening after Prior Lake received the opening kickoff, players and coaches anticipated success.

Instead, they got a safety. The Sabers tackled running back Spencer Shaver in the end zone for a 2-0 lead just eight seconds into the game.

Im thinking, Did that really just happen?andthinsp; Gegenheimer said.

The miscue became a footnote in Prior Lakes 41-8 victory. OConnor effectively ran Eschs spread offense, completing 11 passes for 69 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 100 yards and two scores.

We werent able to settle in on that first series the way youd like to but after that, things were good, OConnor said. I enjoyed the options I had, the offensive line stepped up and everyone played well.

Spread offenses have grown in popularity in the past decade for two reasons: More players throw and catch the football better, and more passing draws more athletes to football. Gegenheimer, who ran the wing-T formation through much of his tenure, brought Esch onboard with those factors in mind.

For a long time we had football and wrestling kids so the wing-T really fit us, said Gegenheimer, whose Lakers went to state in 2011, 2012, 2014 and last season. With Marks offense, Im hoping the basketball kids will see how much fun it is out here. Its definitely an exciting brand of football.

OConnor said adopting the spread offense added a little fire to our offensive approach.

Eschs spread requires a quarterback who excels as either a runner or a passer. OConnor grew up playing running back and moved to quarterback as a freshman. Accustomed to years of hard-nosed, run up the middle football, OConnor praised Esch for allowing me to kind of find the offense myself. I always felt he was there for me but he always let me fail and try to get back up.

Esch said OConnor has a great arm, hes smart and he runs hard. You cant ask for anything better than that.

Working with players is a big reason Esch, who stepped down as Mankato Wests head coach after the 2016 season, returned to the sidelines.

I just enjoy focusing on the offense and not doing all the other leg work that comes with the head coaching position, said Esch, who moved his family to the Twin Cities.

Esch runs the offense. Gegenheimer handles administrative duties and special teams. Add defensive coordinator Tom Menke and Prior Lake has what Gegenheimer considers three head coaches that can work together. Despite installing the spread offense, Prior Lake hasnt strayed from its power football roots.

A test of strength begins Friday at home against Maple Grove and continues on the road against 2017 Prep Bowl participants Eden Prairie and Minnetonka.

The thing I like about Mark is, hes still a run guy, Gegenheimer said. He has the same philosophy as we do.

Esch said, With certain teams, the spread is more pass-oriented and for others its more run-oriented. Were still trying to find what we do best. But we tell our kids to set the physical tone every week and I felt like we did that last week.

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