by Troy Misko
Staff writer

It didn’t take long for the Coon Rapids football team’s hopes for a turnaround season in 2010 to be dealt a serious blow. It happened before the season’s opening kickoff.

The team lost junior running back Antonio Ford, its go-to player and perhaps a star in the making, to a knee injury during the final live tackling drill of two-a-day preseason practices.

Though the injury wasn’t expected to be season-ending for Ford, it did sideline him for the first couple of games of the season.

It appeared Ford’s absence would not help the team’s prospects of returning toward the top of the Northwest Suburban Conference standings this year.

The Cardinals, after going 8-3 in 2008, endured a 2-7 campaign last season. The plan this year was to rebound behind the rushing of Ford, who last year emerged as the team’s most potent offensive threat.

Ford rushed for 191 yards in his debut as Coon Rapids ‘ featured running back as a sophomore. He eclipsed 100 yards again a few games later.

Then, only five games into his career as a varsity starter, he had a career night, rushing for a school-record 368 yards and five touchdowns in a win over Elk River.

Ford suffered a broken hand in that game and was out until the team’s season-ending loss to Centennial in the Section 7AAAAA playoffs. He ended his abbreviated season with 835 yards and eight touchdowns.

Although injury prevented Ford from showing what he could do over the course of an entire season, he demonstrated enough potential in a few games, particularly his record-setting game against Elk River, that it was obvious he would be the focal point of the Cardinals’ offense this season.

His preseason knee injury this year — reportedly a slight tear to his medial collateral ligament — again would keep him from putting up a full season’s worth of running statistics and severely hinder his chances of rewriting Coon Rapids ‘ record book.

More importantly, it all but doomed Coon Rapids to another sub-.500 season.

Or so it seemed.

Enter Maurice “Mo” Ward.

Ward, also a junior running back, stepped up to fill Ford’s role of workhorse and game-changer to open the season. He ran for more than 300 yards and four touchdowns in this season’s first two games to help lift Coon Rapids to its first 2-0 start in nearly a decade.

Behind an offensive line that features only one senior, Ward rushed 26 times for 150 yards and three scores in Coon Rapids ‘ 34-20 win over Park Center in the season-opener on Sept. 2. He then carried the ball 29 times for 164 yards and a touchdown in his team’s 16-12 victory over Armstrong Sept. 10.

Ward’s 314 rushing yards through the season’s first two games — he ran for 329 yards in six games as a sophomore — ranks him among the state’s leaders. And while he has seized the spotlight, he isn’t the only runner to have prospered in the Cardinals’ backfield this season.

Shaquille Theus, another of the team’s stable of talented junior running backs, has also made contributions on the ground, adding a touchdown and averaging more than five yards per carry while spelling Ward.

“We’ve been able to run the ball effectively without our best running back,” Coon Rapids head coach Jon Young said.

“We have a couple guys that have done a really good job in Antonio’s absence. Mo, obviously. I think he’s third in the metro in rushing right now in [Class] AAAAA.

“He has had only one fumble in 55 carries and he has had a couple touchdowns and he has over 300 yards rushing. So that’s wonderful. Then Shaquille [Theus] has been a good step-in guy, a change-of-pace guy, a speed guy.”

That’s not to say Ford hasn’t been missed. But he won’t be for much longer. Ford returned to practice in full pads Sept. 14 and Young said he would be back in the lineup for the team’s Sept. 17 game against Anoka .
Ford’s return could create interesting dilemmas for both Coon Rapids and its opponents.

He’ll be another weapon — still the primary weapon — in an offense that found rushing success and discovered additional standout talent in his absence. The Cardinals also have witnessed junior Alex Aase begin to settle into his role as starting quarterback.

“We haven’t had to put the game in his lap yet,” Young said of Aase. “He has been able to get his confidence. He doesn’t have to make a multitude of plays in a game. He just has to manage the game. He knows how to manage situations and he has done a really good job of that.”

As Aase becomes more comfortable, Young expects to see a bigger impact from his receivers.

Malcom Farley, a senior tight end who led the team with 37 receptions last year, so far has been limited to only four catches — two for touchdowns.

Dom Reff, a junior defensive back, has seen action at wide receiver and Young expects the offensive roles of Reff and Theus to grow as the season progresses.

The Cardinals’ use of their playbook will grow, too.

“When Antonio [Ford] comes back, everybody [will be] looking at him,” Young said. “So we have to have some ways to keep the pressure off a little bit. Our playbook will expand a little bit more because of the complexity of the defenses that we’re going to see. We’re going to have to have some answers.

“Having all of those weapons is sort of a double-edged sword. It creates match-up problems and it creates some challenges for defenses, but everybody has to understand that they might only get the ball two times this game, 10 times the next game and 20 times in the last game.

“It depends on how we get defended and where we think we have the biggest advantage. That will determine where the ball is going to go and who is going to get it. The pro of it we have a lot of guys that can handle the ball. The con is that we don’t have enough balls to go around. We have to have some unselfish football players.

“But I think we have a team that’s really unselfish.”

Coon Rapids also has a team that is 2-0 in conference play for the first time since 2001, when the Cardinals won their first five games of the season.

Play within the conference aside, the program hasn’t had any kind of 2-0 start in some time. Even in 2008, the program’s best season in recent years, the team started 1-2 before going on a seven-game winning streak.

And while 2-0 is a good start, it is just that: a start. Coon Rapids ‘ biggest tests await it on the schedule.

“Morale is good and I think the kids are still hungry,” Young said. “They see that we have some bigger fish to fry. Our schedule, based on last year’s records and traditions of the programs that we play in our conference, starts to get a lot more difficult. We’re looking to be in the top third in the conference — the top three teams. We’re going to have to knock some people off.”

It will take weeks and successive games against the likes of Anoka, Champlin Park, Blaine, Andover and Osseo before the Cardinals’ place in the conference comes into focus. But the early signs are good, especially considering how bleak the initial outlook was when Ford injured his knee in two-a-days.

And now, with Ford’s impending return to action, the early-season success could continue.

Or get better.


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