Earning a new culture: Cardinals have risen to great heights in six years

Published 7:44 pm Monday, November 15, 2021

LEROY — The streets of LeRoy have been flooded with Cardinal logos and encouraging messages for the state semifinal-bound football team, but there is one sign that tells the story better than any of them.

In front of LeRoy-Ostrander High School sits a small white sign with the words ‘Always Earned, Never Given.’ These Cardinals were nobody’s favorites when they chose not to field a varsity team six years ago, but they’ve put in all of the time and effort needed to put together L-O’s best season in more than 15 years. 

Now, they are hoping to rally together to win the first state championship in school history.

L-O senior Gavin Sweeney doesn’t have a lot of memories of the Cardinal team that only played JV football in 2015, but he does recall watching standout running back Lucas Roe compete for the Cardinals in 2013. Sweeney was just an elementary student then and now he’s preparing to play in one of the biggest games in Cardinal history.

“When we were in fifth and sixth grade, we won all of our games but one in the regular season and we won the championship,” Sweeney said. “It wasn’t anything really special then, but we knew once we got older that we could be something special. Now we’re here in the semifinals.”

L-O head coach Trevor Carrier was an assistant coach in 2015 and he’s seen the program grow every year since he has taken over. 

“Right now is a very good time to be here. It is rewarding to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” Carrier said. “We had to do something (in 2015). We didn’t have a lot of guys in those junior and senior classes and we just weren’t ready to compete. There were too many young kids on the field and you’re not going to have success with that in the best section in nine man. It was a wise decision and since then, things have changed.”

The Cardinals had an undefeated regular season in 2019 with the help of Carter Johnson, the older brother of senior quarterback Chase Johnson, and Riley Olson, the older brother of running back Tanner Olson. Both Chase and Tanner said that their older brothers are jealous of them being able to play in the state semifinals, but they both give credit to their older brothers for helping to change the culture in L-O.

“I don’t want to diss the older teams, but the mentality is completely different now. It all started when my brother was a senior and they started lifting more,” Chase said. “I think everyone’s excited, even the teachers are talking to us about it. The parents are obviously excited and we haven’t had to pay for anything in the community. They’re donating a ton of money.”

On the field, the Cardinals are a no-nonsense team that hits hard and plays with fire. They are unapologetic, feisty and driven. But they are also very humble; getting any L-O player to talk about themselves is like putting them through a root canal. 

They’d rather celebrate the team, the town or the coaching staff than brag about stats or accomplishments. The players have stayed focused throughout this state tournament run and the lights haven’t been too bright as of yet, but Tanner admits that the nerves are starting to creep in with the prospect of playing in US Bank Stadium.

“It’s going to be a completely different atmosphere and it’s a little nerve racking,” he said.

L-O assistant coach Aaron Hungerholt was the head coach in 2015, and he said the team needed some consistency with the coaching staff to get back on track. The players bought in as they got in the weight room and stuck with it over the last six years.

“We had real good kids who bought into what we were trying to do,” Hungerholt said. “We knew we had a six year window of good athletes that we could do things with. I think the support that we have now, especially with the administration has allowed coaches to do what they needed to do. It’s been a great atmosphere, not just in sports but also in the school.”

Few administrators in the state are as excited for the state football tournament as L-O superintendent Jennifer Backer-Johnson, who has a son that plays for the Chatfield football team. Chatfield is scheduled to play Barnesville in the Class AA semifinals right after L-O’s semifinal game on Thursday.

“It’s a lot of excitement,” Hungerholt said. “We have a lot of good kids who are easy to get behind.”

SEMIFINAL SHOWDOWN

LeRoy-Ostrander (10-2 overall) will take on Kittson County Central in the Minnesota State Football Class Nine Man Tournament semifinals at 11:30 a.m. Thursday in US Bank Stadium .

KCC (10-2 overall) beat Olgilvie 27-20 in the state quarterfinals on Friday. The Cardinals beat Wheaton/Herman-Norcross 57-26 in the quarterfinals.