ST. CLOUD -- A quarterfinal game in the state Class AAA playoffs won't give the New London-Spicer football team too many jitters. Many of these players have been here before.
The Wildcats (11-0), who won their state debut in last year's quarterfinals, will face Minneapolis North in the opening round at 3 p.m. today at Husky Stadium in St. Cloud.
New London-Spicer's youthful players got a sampling of the big time in 2008, reaching the semifinals, then losing to DeLaSalle. Many of those players were key parts to that team, and now they're a year older.
"Actually we are very similar in most regards to last year's team," said NLS coach Dan Essler. "Our defense is better overall. We should be, since eight guys are back."
The offense, with junior quarterback Jayme Moten now running the show, is getting close what last year's team accomplished, Essler noted. But there will be one missing piece to the offense and special teams.
Senior running back and return specialist Jake Essler suffered a concussion in last Friday's Section 6AAA championship game against Albany. Essler, the coach's son, didn't make it through the first quarter.
"He had a 12-yard run on his first carry, then either on his second or third run he got hit on the head on back-to-back running plays," Dan Essler said. "After his fifth carry he said he had no idea what was going on. We pulled him about six minutes into the game."
By Tuesday, the younger Essler was listed as day-to-day. Wednesday, he was cleared to play, but will only play safety on defense and long snap on special teams, his father said.
It will be up to seniors Luke Peterson, Sam Schmid, Derek Henle and Moten to pick up the slack in the running game, much as they did Friday. Peterson ran for 126 yards and one touchdown and Moten had two short TD runs. As a team, NL-Spicer ran for 215 yards with only 17 from Essler, who leads the team with 1,021 yards.
The Wildcats' coach said having depth makes the team a lot better.
"We feel that if we get more players involved, they will be more ready when it is their time to get the ball," Dan Essler said. "We have had some injuries lately and the players that have filled in are already starters on the other side of the ball. It's great to have a real varsity-type player being a backup at all our positions."
Minneapolis North also has a lot of multi-year starters in its starting lineup. The Polars (9-2) played a tough schedule, with four games against Class AAAA or higher and the other four against Class AAA teams in the Minneapolis City Conference. North dropped in class to AAA after many years in AAAA.
"Dropping in class can only better us," said Polars coach Tony Patterson. "We only have about 470 in our school. It's only fair for us to match up with schools with the same enrollment."
The Polars' defense was the best in their conference, allowing just 11 points-per-game. Patterson said the defense has been the strength of the team this season.
North's offense does a good job mixing the run and pass. Senior running back Robert Cannady leads the ground game with 1,155 yards and 14 touchdowns. Senior quarterback Carleton Littlejohn adds 691 yards and 11 TDs. Through the air, Littlejohn has completed 53-of-113 passes for 832 yards and 16 TDs.
"We're lead by our quarterback. He's our leader and makes big plays for us," Patterson said of Littlejohn.
Essler said Minneapolis North will try to stretch the field.
"They run a lot of shotgun spread, but will shrink down to Power-I in short yardage situations," he said. "Their defense is a 4-3, 4-4. They are a very good, solid team. Not real big, but fast and quick."