Football fans converged in Minneapolis on Thanksgiving weekend to watch the state’s best compete in Prep Bowl XXVI. For high school athletes, the tournament is their Super Bowl. Running out of the tunnel. Playing on television. Hoisting the trophy. Carrying their coach off the field. Slipping on that championship ring. It’s the stuff dreams and lifelong memories are made of.
The Washburn Millers could taste all of it the night they stunned the prep football world with a 42-41 section victory over St. Thomas Academy. Tears of joy streamed down players’ faces as they took a knee in front of head coach, Peter Haugen. The win put them on the road to state — something their team, their school, and the city hadn’t experienced in a decade.
After the quarterfinal game a week later, there were tears again. And taking a knee on the Macalester field would be the last time the team did so for the season. The Wildcats of Waconia had ended their run, just one game away from the coveted Metrodome appearance.
When his players broke that final huddle, Coach Haugen made sure every one of them walked off the field knowing they were winners. Despite a tough loss, they left with the honor that comes from being a Miller and satisfaction over what they’d accomplished.
They won their seventh consecutive Minneapolis City Conference Championship.
They advanced to the 2007 Class AAAA State Tournament.
Academically, nearly half of this year’s team made the honor roll.
Out of 25 seniors playing last fall, 24 went on to continue their education.
They’ve been the top team in Minneapolis for most of the past two decades.
They’ve built an envied reputation of excellence on and off the field. If ever there was a team that exemplifies the pride of Southwest, it’s the Washburn Millers.
Their leader and role model is an alum, class of 1987. Peter Haugen, who just finished his 14th year of coaching, has also taught and now serves as an administrator at his alma mater.
He’s very candid about his players and what success looks like for student athletes in the Washburn program. He’s also quick to point out there is more than winning when it comes to building a high school football team.
"Winning is really a great thing, but our goal is that the kids understand being men of character and men of class," Haugen said.
His team must face and overcome many intangibles, on and off the field. But Haugen is firm in his belief that every player is capable of great things regardless of their circumstances.
"What is unique about Minneapolis is we have kids coming in from various schools every single year," Haugen said. "Not only do they not know each other, they come from [a wide variety] of backgrounds. Just the fact that they are coming from so many different places is a big challenge."
This diversity is something Haugen and his assistants understand and welcome.
When the season started, Washburn’s coaching staff knew they were in for another good run … just how good, they weren’t sure.
They went into it relying on a number of underclassmen at skill positions and a group of solid seniors, so team building was important.
Haugen lauds the efforts of senior captains Tony Catchings, Peter Joppru, Nick Lundquist, Donovan Martin, and Trevell Holmes. They stepped up and showed the way for 70 teammates.
The team took the Minneapolis City title. They proved to be resilient and consistent all season long, pulling together through ups and downs and the loss of two nonconference games. They finished with a winning record of 7-2 overall. Haugen shared that their strategy didn’t involve spending time getting caught up with the scoreboard.
While kickoff may be nine months away, Haugen and his coaches are already envisioning great things for their team in 2008.
After winning nine games and making an outstanding section run which included the much talked about victory over St. Thomas, the Millers move forward with momentum. The Washburn juggernaut should continue to roll with a number of very good athletes coming back. Leading the returnees is All-Metro tight end Ra’shede Hageman, who is being recruited by Big Ten and other Division I schools.
"Ra’shede had a terrific year," Haugen said. "He was spectacular in the three playoff games."
With quarterback Brandon King, receiver Peter Branstad and running backs Marcea and Montrell Wade also on the roster, Miller fans can plan on another powerhouse season. And maybe a trip down to the dome.
No matter what the future holds, Washburn football will always be about so much more than wins and losses. It’s a larger life experience with lessons about discipline, work ethic, adversity and adaptability that Coach Haugen knows will stick with his players long after their high school careers.
"We know this situation is special," said Haugen. "The players I coach, I wouldn’t trade for anything. We love these kids. They’re all winners. Knowing them is our privilege."