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Program Profile: Spectrum Sting
Posted On: 10/4/18 12:02 AM
In 2014 the Spectrum Sting finished the football season with a regular season record of 1-7. The program had only won six games in its brief three-year history and had never won a playoff game. In 2015 a Spectrum freshman class would take the varsity field for the first time and change the state of Spectrum football. Six freshmen played a lot for the Sting that season. Eventually, youth was served. As seniors, those freshmen have the Sting at 5-0 atop the Twin City – Blue district.
Head coach Seth Mills has seen this group of players go through their ups and downs. He has seen them make mistakes and seen them mature into good football players and good people – and this program grow into one of the top programs in Class 3A.
When those freshmen played under the Friday night lights for the first time, they were not the only ones who might have been too young to have success so early. The school itself was established in 2007 and had only been open for six years. Their head coach had yet to see his 27th birthday.
Mills grew up as the son of a football coach in Kansas.
“Being around football growing up that is what I knew and what I enjoyed,” Mills said. “Football has always been a big part of my life.”
A part-time starter as a sophomore and junior, Mills started both ways as a senior. He continued his football career playing defensive back for Tabor College – an NAIA school in Kansas. He had little doubt he was going to pursue coaching.
“I love the game,” Mills said. “The chess match aspect began to grow on me. I loved the aspect of the team. The relationships you build is something you can’t find anywhere else.”
Mills started his coaching career as an offensive coordinator for an 8-man program in Oklahoma. A few years later he got his first head coaching job at another 8-man program in Kansas. After a single year coaching back in Oklahoma, Mills and his wife – who is from Minnesota – decided to move to Minnesota.
“I didn’t even have a teaching or coaching job yet,” Mills explained. “I can honestly say the Lord brought us here. I was going to work construction by Mille Lacs Lake – which would have been fine- we knew people up there, but I was still hoping for a teaching job. The pieces kept falling into place, and the opportunity presented itself.”
Mills had never coached an 11-man football team. He knew he would have to draw from his past to make sure his present would get off to a good start.
“One of the only defenses I knew much about – as far as coaching goes – was the 4-3. My dad used to run it, so I started with that. Now we run more of a 3-3 because of all the spread we see. I tried to find as many coaches that I knew that were successful and tried to see what they did and talked to as many of them as I could. A guy who coached with my dad in the Shrine Bowl ran the flex bone triple option. We ran that for one year.
A flashback to a team he couldn’t beat as a player started the process of changing the Sting’s offense.
“I saw a video about the single wing, and that brought me back to high school,” Mills explained. “We got beat out in the playoffs two years by the eventual state champion, and they ran the single wing. I remember when we ran it on scout team it was one of the most fun offenses that you could run. We have been single wing ever since.”
The program was entering its second season – a much different situation than Mills had encountered in the past.
“There were some expectations, but not compared to other places I had been. In a way, I got to come in and set it up exactly the way I felt like it should be set up. It was refreshing not to have guys coming up and saying, ‘when we were in high school we did this.’ There were no expectations from the past. Everybody was quick to get on board because it was the first time they had it.”
Mills knew he needed one thing right away from everyone involved in the program.
“The main thing was having effort in all areas,” Mills told northstarfootballnews.com. “That included the weight room, and how you were in school. The mental and physical effort has got to be high. We had a lot of guys who were great kids, and they were smart. Some of them had not played a lot of football so we were focusing on the effort aspect and let the rest come as it may. I made a lot of mistakes and could have done a lot of things better. That was one thing I think helped – bringing effort to the table – myself included – and keeping it that way for the entire week, the entire game and the entire season.”
They only won two games Mills’ first year, but it was still a season Mills will never forget.
“That was probably one of my fondest years of coaching. The purity of the game was great. There were no pre-determined expectations. It was just, let’s lift, let’s play ball and grow our relationships with our players.”
By his Mills’ third year, the Sting had a .500 season and a playoff win under their belt.
“The exceptional buy-in from the beginning was a huge step because by the third year – the first year we went 5-5 – we had six or seven kids who are seniors now that were able to play a ton as freshmen. They were guys who had played a lot of football growing up and were more football minded. They were able to step in early and as they grew and matured it helped us get confidence. By the third year starting they were feeling comfortable.”
Two seasons ago – when the core of this years’ team were sophomores – the Sting avenged an early season loss in the first round of the playoffs.
“Concordia Academy beat us the first game of the year,” Mills recalled. “We were still trying to figure things out. For whatever reason when we played them in the first round of the playoffs, our guys stepped it up. Our intensity was higher, and we won 44-0. I think it gave us the confidence to get over that .500 record and become one of the top teams in the district. That helped the boys to see they could do it and they could be at a higher level than they thought.”
That higher level starts in practice. Mills and his staff believe if they can start with great effort in practice, everything else will fall into line.
“We like to stress the small things,” the Sting head coach said. “We do at least a period of fundamentals every Tuesday and sometimes Wednesdays. We also stress the thinking side of things. If we can know the effort needs to be there mentally and physically, then we can operate. We are not perfect at it. There are days we don’t give good effort in practice, but when we have effort in place then the fundamentals, the reads, the thinking aspect is our focus.”
Spectrum is a public, charter school in Elk River. Before the coaches can stress the small things, they must figure out who the kids are that they are going to have from year to year.
“Kids play in the Elk River system,” Mills explained. “We have several 7th and 8th graders who play with us; they play on the junior varsity. That is the extent of our feeder system.”
The coaches hear about some of the kids they will be getting, starting in 7th grade, but they are never sure who they are going to have with each new class. Since the youth football kids aren’t associated with Spectrum or Elk River High School, the kids don’t learn the basics of Spectrum’s offense or defense.
“We want to have our offense and defense spelled out in a clear way so that it is not a difficult system to pick up,” the former Kansas prep football player explained. “We have rules and concepts that kids can attach. That has taken some time to develop, but we make it is simple, and the kids seem to pick up on it well. Once they start to get it, you have kids helping kids. Each year it gets more streamlined.”
It helps that both Spectrum and Elk River run power football offenses.
“In the youth system, if you can pull and block down and you can kick out and pick up a linebacker that really helps. (Spectrum and Elk River High School) are not much different. We might call it different, and we are structured different, but at the end of the day if you can down block someone and drive block someone, we will take you.”
The kids they took about five years ago are now the backbone of this years’ team.
“We have six seniors who have played a lot of varsity since they were freshmen. Blake Smith is a tight end, a running back, and a defensive back. Cole Elrod is a receiver and a defensive back; Carsten Cross is a running back and a defensive back. Fisher Marberg and Sam Cooper are both running backs and linebackers. Sam Koppendrayer is an offensive and defensive lineman. They have grown. Last year Fischer led the state in rushing in the regular season. All of those guys were a big part of that too.”
Most of the coaching staff has been working with the seniors since the start.
“I have a group of committed coaches who are passionate about the team. They spend a lot of time and energy. They take care of all those small details that are hard to do if you don’t have somebody to take care of it. Kassidy Cook is my defensive coordinator. He played at Northwestern College. This season will be his fourth year with us. He also works with the defensive line. Scott Gangl is the special teams’ coordinator and the JV head coach. He is committed to growing, getting better and is committed to the kids.”
“Rick Marberg coaches the offensive line,” Mills continued. “Jon Benge has been with me for several years and does all the communications and website stuff. Seton Foster helps with the JV and a lot of behind the scenes stuff. John Neman, Scott Gable, JT Cross, and Tim Foskett all put in a lot of time and energy into this program.”
With all the early success they have had, Mills knows they have a long way to go.
“Our offseason preparation needs to grow. I would like to see more commitment to the weight room in the offseason. We are about to hit another young cycle after this year. We have some good young kids coming up. We have several offensive linemen coming back next year, so we need to be able to step in with some maturity despite our youth. We will need to have a similar approach as we did three years ago with all those young guys.”
Those young guys from three years ago have grown into the leaders of the program.
“This class has had the privilege of having two or three strong character guys and leaders in the classes before them,” Mills said. “When they were freshmen and sophomores they could just show up and play and not worry about the leadership aspect of it; they got to see it. They were able to take a few things from those guys. For the most part, these seniors have been cut in, but they have had their share of struggles too. That has been part of their journey. We have learned to interact, and we have learned to grow together. The things we have overcome together individually and together has helped us because the on the field stuff doesn’t seem as big because we always want to look inside at ourselves.”
“Some of the guys have always been rock solid in all areas and have been cut in, and are more of the quiet leaders,” Mills continued. “Then we have two or three others that had some of that rebelliousness. In the long run, that rebelliousness is good to have on the football field, but in terms of the team or us as coaches, some things needed to be addressed. They eventually bought in. There were turning points along the way, and their maturity has gone way up. You have to have both. We have gone through the highs and lows together and grown together as a group – it has been awesome.”
The seniors and coaching staff didn’t do it alone.
“The Spectrum community has had a wiliness to step in and help,” Mills said. “They have given so much time and energy to the program. They have done a lot to accelerate our growth as a program. They have been a huge part of our success. The community has also really supported the idea that football is not everything. We desire to be a program that enjoys football and the love of competition, also understanding ultimately there is much more to life than just these short few seasons. We would be doing an injustice if this was all that it was. We want to understand that we did not choose to be born where we were born, with the genetics and abilities we have been given, but also be grateful and work hard to be a good steward of these things. We have a mission statement that is ‘To be grateful for what we have been given, tough in all situations, and committed to a cause that is greater than ourselves.”
On the backs of a dedicated group of parents, coaches and a no longer young group of six, the Spectrum football program has come a long way in a short amount of time. While proud of what they accomplished, Coach Mills knows there is more to do.
“We understand we are not tops in the state or have not made a big playoff run yet,” concluded Mills. “We have goals, and we are going to keep trying for them.”