MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Cold, ice and snow complicated practice plans this week for teams in the Minnesota state high school football semifinals.
Wintry weather is not the biggest challenge coaches and players at Minneapolis North have faced, and not because their nickname is the Polars.
School district officials threatened four years ago to shut down the school amid plummeting student enrollment and academic performance, and surrounding neighborhoods have long struggled with poverty and crime. In 2011, after North was spared a closure, the Polars lost every game they played.
"Everybody has been through a lot," wide receiver Keyon Thomas said. "We've had our ups and downs, but we've fought through it."
Rewards of perseverance have been reaped this fall. The Polars take an 11-0 record into their game on Saturday against Dawson-Boyd. One more win, and they'll play for a state championship.
"We got tired of losing, and everybody just bought in," quarterback and safety Tyler Johnson said. "We wanted to show everybody what we've got."
The formal name of the school is North Community High, and it fits. The oldest secondary school in the city, dating to 1888, North has long been at the center of north side pride. Coach Charles Adams is an alumnus, as are both of his parents. Thomas smiled on Wednesday, recalling his decision to stick with North. He considered playing for Washburn, the perennial Minneapolis City Conference power on the south side, when North's future in jeopardy.
"Everywhere you go people talk about North High. I'll go somewhere and I'll be mad because I don't have any gear," said Thomas, one of six seniors on the team. "People will be talking about it, and I'll be right there."
Johnson, who has begun to receive Big Ten interest with Iowa paying particularly close attention, is the heart of strong junior class that gained valuable experience as freshmen in 2012 when the Polars went 2-7.
"Regardless of what our record was and the financial situation at the school, I ran this program like it's any other big school, like it's any other program," Adams said.
Strong role models are a critical part of the equation, too, and former Minnesota Vikings middle linebacker E.J. Henderson has helped filled that niche. His E.J. Henderson Youth Foundation moved into an old woodshop room at North to be closer to the urban youth it serves. As part of a mind-body-soul approach to fitness and development, the foundation has set up a workout facility complete with artificial turf plus a lounge where life skills are taught between weightlifting sessions.
Many of the Polars, like Johnson and Thomas, have taken part in Henderson's free summer football camps. Some of the seeds of that commitment to improve were sewn there.
"The leaders on the team recognized that they're not just going to be able to show up at practice or show up at games basically and outperform people," said Henderson, whose NFL career ended in 2011. "I think they took a more serious approach to their offseason training."
The Polars went 7-3 last year and this season found another gear. They outscored their six city rivals 249-18, including a 41-0 win over Washburn, which had won or shared the conference title the last 13 years. They've allowed an average of just 5.9 points per game. In beating Blooming Prairie last week, the Polars limited the state's leading passer, John Rumpza, to 105 yards in a 10-for-30 performance with a late interception in the end zone.
The Polars are playing in the second-smallest class in the state tournament, a unique juxtaposition that pits a team from the state's largest city against boys from tiny towns and farming communities many miles away from the skyscrapers framing the view from North's home field.
"A lot of people don't know this, but this was my last choice," said Johnson, who lives 10 blocks away. "I was going to go out to the suburbs or a private school and then that last Sunday came up when I had to decide and I was like, 'I'll just go to North High.' I didn't want to get up at like 4 or 5 in the morning. I can just get up at 7 and walk to school and get all my homework done."
He added: "I have a lot of people relying on me, so I just want to make my hometown proud."
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