Bringing the THUNDER

By Tom Fenton

Building a successful high school football program doesn’t happen overnight. But if the last season-and-a-half are any indication, the Sauk Rapids-Rice Storm are headed in the direction Phillip Klaphake envisioned when he took over the program in 2016.

The Storm has raised eyebrows in Class 5A football statewide since the start of the 2021 season, focusing on putting their best athletes in the best positions to win games while instilling a family-style culture focused on togetherness and a winning attitude. SRR has established itself as a top St. Cloud metro-area team and is 5-0 heading into Friday night’s game at St. Francis – which also is unbeaten.

“Part of what we do is motivate our kids to get excited so they intrinsically want to be good,” said Klaphake, who owns almost every passing record for the now-defunct St. Cloud State program. “You also need a community that is supportive and excited about it. They know the community values it. They see it when you go to games and there are tons of people there.

“I’m happy with the direction we are going, but I don’t know that I’ll ever be content on where we are. That’s just a personality thing with me in that we’re always chasing that perfect game even if that isn’t possible.”

Klaphake is 29-28 with the program. The team had two winning seasons in his first three years, including a 7-3 campaign in 2018 that ended with a loss to Elk River in the section title game.

That section title game is the benchmark of where he wants to at least have a chance at playing in most seasons. 

That consistency wasn’t there for the next two seasons as Klaphake continued to instill both his playbook and his values. The Storm won their first six games in 2021, mostly in dominant fashion, but were unable to recover from a string of key injuries that included losing their starting quarterback to a broken ankle.

“We want to be in the mix every year for the district and section championships,” Klaphake said. “If you’re in the mix consistently, you’ve got to hope every once in a while, you can pop through and win it. It’s not fair to kids to tell them you’re going to win a section championship every year.”

Among those pleased with the team’s path is John Rasmussen, who has been the defensive coordinator for 30 years and has been with the program for 39 years. How he has seen the program progress in the past six years has helped keep his job fun.

“It’s been fun watching our players grow and learn,” Rasmussen said. “Of course, it’s always fun when you’re successful. We’ve had our share of success, but it’s important to remember how close most of our games are. A play here or there can change the outcome of the game. We’ve been fortunate lately that we’ve been able to execute and make those plays.  It’s been really fun to see the school and community get so excited for Storm football.”

Last year’s team produced several players who are on college rosters, including Jayce Walrath and Carter Loesch at Minnesota-Duluth and Bryce Lund at Southwest Minnesota State. Will White, Dom Mathies and Dane Dingmann are all at Gustavus.  

This season, SRR again lost its starting quarterback when Jack Klein went down with a broken arm in a Week 2 victory at St. Cloud Tech. Athletic senior Keegan Patterson, who also plays hockey and is a pitcher in baseball, stepped in and didn’t miss a beat. 

The Storm have handily beaten arch-rival and next-door neighbor Sartell in each of the past two season-openers and have found ways to win games in different ways. SRR used a methodical offense and stingy defense in its first two wins over Sartell and St. Cloud Tech and took advantage of big plays in a win at Alexandria. 

They won their homecoming game over Cambridge-Isanti in monsoon-like conditions and out-lasted a Bemidji team that runs a triple option offense that causes migraines to opposing defenses. Against the Lumberjacks, the Storm had scoring drives of 58, 60, 97, 71 and 82 yards while piling up 451 yards of offense.

That offense has been sparked by the passing connection of Patterson to senior Andrew Harren, who is drawing interest from several colleges.   

“We’ve just been getting better every week and building on our successes,” said Harren, who has 25 catches for 533 yards and five touchdowns this season. “Our senior class is really close, and Keegan and I are really close. That helps us a lot. We just want to keep pushing the program further and making this a football school.”

Despite falling for a few of Bemidji’s trickery in the first half in their Sept. 30 win, the Storm defense has been solid at creating turnovers and mostly has avoided giving up the home run ball. 

“It’s been a good season. We’ve had a lot of younger guys step up into varsity roles and it’s been a lot of fun,” said senior defensive tackle and Division II-III prospect Travis Biery, who has a team-best 62 tackles, including two sacks and 10 tackles for loss. “Our program is at a good point. Our coaches do a great job of getting the most effort they can out of this team. We’ve just got to keep getting better, finish plays and not underestimate anybody.”

The Storm finish their season with home games against Moorhead and Monticello and will be hoping to clinch the No. 1 seed in the section so they don’t have to leave town for the playoffs. One win in their final two games would ensure a first-round by in Section 8AAAAA for the second straight year. 

Klaphake said there were 215 kids in grades 3-6 in flag football this fall – the most they’ve had. Varsity numbers have hovered around the 100-player mark, something he hopes to increase by about 15 in the future. 

“I feel really good about where Sauk Rapids-Rice football is right now,” Klaphake said. “I really believe our goal is to overachieve. We want kids that want to be good and love what they do. As long as there are kids who love the game and want to work on it, we’ll be good.

“It’s no individual thing. It’s not me and my coaches only. It’s not kids and their families only. It’s all of us. I’m pretty intentional about trying to make sure kids are having positive experiences and not burning kids out.”