A look back: Nicollet becomes a 9-man state football power
NICOLLET — Nicollet head football coach Tom Murphy has been one of the more successful 9-man coaches in the state, coaching for more than 30 years (as a head coach and an assistant). In that time, he has coached the Raiders to seven state tournament appearances (1999, 2002, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013, 2014) and three state championship game appearances (1999, 2002, 2009).
The Nicollet football program wasn’t too successful prior to Murphy being named the head coach. He knew that if the program was to succeed, there had to be a lot of hard work done by everyone on and off the field.
In 1998, the Raiders made it to the section championship game but got crushed by Alden-Conger. They finished the season 6-5 with a strong junior class that was ready to do more the next year.
Led by eight seniors, the Raiders made it all the way to the state championship game in 1999. Ryan Hulke was the quarterback and Jason Schilling was the standout defensive player that year. They also had seniors Mitch Wilking, Tony Meisner, Tom Hohenstein, Dan Dorn, Mike Anthony and Nate Wenner.
“Lots of those kids got playing time as sophomores and Ryan became our quarterback right away,” Murphy said. “Their junior year, we got annihilated by Alden-Conger, it was bad. But to those kids credit, they decided to come back and work real hard that year. But the other thing too was just how well they got along.”
Murphy said at that time, the players were starting to build a community that led to the success of future players. He said he was able to build a strong relationship with the players and they knew that he loved coaching them.
“They were in elementary school when I started here and they were part of the initial flag football teams here and it just became something they did,” Murphy said of that senior class.
Nicollet finished that year 11-3, defeating Westbrook-Walnut Grove in the section championship game. From there, they made the long trek to Fergus Falls for the state quarterfinals and they defeated Hillcrest Lutheran.
After that, they played Chokio-Alberta in the metrodome in the semifinals and won, advancing to their first-ever state championship.
“We were in the game, but they always had a little bit more firepower than us,” Murphy said. “But that was kind of the group that got things going and our younger kids learned from them. The kids in the younger grades had significant success in the next three or four years and I think that ’99 team was what led to us getting back to the state tournament in ’02.”
They lost to Stephen-Argyle in the championship in ’99, but that freshman class would be back to the tournament in 2002.
In 2002, led by Tony Hulke at quarterback, the Raiders had athletes all over the field. The Raiders finished that year 13-1, the only loss coming in the championship game. Loaded with 10 seniors, they defeated Chokio-Alberta in the state quarterfinals in front of a big crowd at Nicollet.
“It looked like there were 20,000 people there, I know there weren’t, but there were people everywhere and we put up a lot of points that night,” Murphy said.
Once they got to the Dome, they knocked off Stephen-Argyle in the semifinals but lost to a physical Verndale team in the state championship.
“We had our chances, we led for a good part of the game, they got a score late and we started going down the field late in the game,” Murphy said. “We were sitting at fourth down inside the 10 and Tony threw a slant to Jamie Wagner and it was just behind him. If Jamie catches it, we either would’ve had a first down or in the end zone. We were starting to just get beat up, and I remember telling one of my assistants that if we get this, we’re going for two. I had an idea what I would’ve run for two, maybe I should’ve run that on fourth down. But we didn’t score and got beat by 7.”
In 2009, the Raiders got back to the tournament. Led by quarterback Brandon Rudenick, they had a group of talented receivers in Sean Murphy, Jamie Fischer, Blake Bode and Matt Renne.
They were in the section finals in 2008 and Rudenick was hurt, so they played Sean Murphy, a freshman, a quarterback.
“We knew we had to keep Rudenick healthy,” coach Murphy said. “We decided to go to the spread offense and my coaches thought I was nuts. Three linemen, protecting a quarterback who never stays healthy, we had to learn to get rid of the ball. We had athletes outside. None of them were real big, but they could catch the ball. They were smart and they knew the game.”
That year, The Raiders defeated Grand Meadow in the quarterfinals and then defeated Ada-Borup in the state semifinals, only to lose to Stephen-Argyle once again in the finals.
He said that the 2002 loss still stings.
“I think the one that hurt the most was in ’02, that one we led for most of the game, to be that close,” Murphy said. “The other games, they were physically better than us. We were just not physically strong enough.”