When only 33 players showed up for the first week of Mayer Lutheran football practice in August, head coach Dean Aurich was more than concerned.
“When the year started, we were scared to death,” he said.
In the smallest team Aurich has ever coached, the Crusaders knew that staying healthy and un-injured throughout the season was the only way success was possible.
“We were very concerned we may struggle if we didn’t stay healthy,” Aurich said.
And for the first 11 games of the season, the Crusaders kept a remarkably healthy squad. With a 10-2 overall record, the Crusaders had the most successful season the school had seen since 2000.
The team’s sole regular season loss was in a 16-13 overtime loss at Tri-City United on Sept. 21.
The Crusaders sealed their share of the Minnesota River Conference crown with a 21-14 victory over Watertown-Mayer on Oct. 17. Mayer Lutheran shared the title with Sibley East; both teams finished the season with 6-1 conference records. Aurich said the Crusaders surprised fans and teams throughout the conference this season.
“Sibley East and Mayer Lutheran are the two smallest teams in the conference and both ended at the top,” he said.
Defeating Brooklyn Center (51-21) and St. Agnes (45-6) handedly in the first two rounds of the Section 4AA tournament, the Crusaders landed themselves in the section finals against the team that has kicked them out of the tournament for three consecutive seasons: Maple Lake.
In a 23-13 victory at Husky Stadium (St. Cloud State) on Nov. 2, the Crusaders defeated the Irish, winning Section 4AA, and earning only their second state tournament entry since the late 1980s.
Unfortunately for Mayer Lutheran, their health and good fortunes lasted only as long as the first quarter of the team’s state quarterfinal game against Jackson County Central. In their 51-20 loss on Nov. 9, the Crusaders lost juniors Joel Burfeind and Nathan Weber, along with sophomore Taylor Otterstatter, to injury in the first half, and were forced to a nearly all-passing game in the second half.
“[JCC] was a good team, very talented,” Aurich said. “We found out what can happen when you lose three All-Conference players to injury in the state quarterfinal game.”
With the extended season came the opportunity for the Crusaders to rack up some impressive season statistics. Totaling over 3,800 offensive yards, Mayer Lutheran scored 39 touchdowns, picked off 17 interceptions, and tallied 29 sacks on opposing quarterbacks. Senior Jeremiah Grimsley completed 92 of 189 passes for well over 1,500 yards this season. He threw 15 touchdowns. Sophomore Cole Buttenhoff completed five of 11 passes for 67 yards and one touchdown.
Senior Phil Burfeind and Joel Burfeind were the team’s top rushers, far surpassing the 500-yard mark. Phil Burfeind led the team with 835 rushing yards, followed by Joel Burfeind with 745. Grimsley (249) and Weber (165) also rushed over 100 yards.
Junior Anthony Gruenhagen led with 42 receptions for 595 yards and four touchdowns. Scoring nine touchdowns on 26 receptions was senior Tanner Luebke, who received 566 yards this season. Joel Burfeind (157) and Phil Burfeind (102) also had significant reception yardage as well.
On defense, Joel Burfeind was the team’s favored kick returner, totally 284 yards in kick returns and 171 yards in punt returns. He returned one kick for a touchdown.
Gruenhagen and junior Mason Diedrick both led the Crusader defense with nine sacks, followed by Otterstatter (5). Otterstatter recovered three fumbles for LHS, while Grimsley, Buttenhoff, and Joel Burfeind each had two. Luebke led the team in interceptions with seven.
Five different Crusaders are now on the school’s all-time records lists after their success on the field this season. Phil Burfeind is now ranked No. 4 all-time for Crusader scoring, after he scored 18 touchdowns and 108 points this season.
Gruenhagen and Luebke are now fifth and seventh on the all-time receivers list. Gruenhagen also is third in sacks for his 11 takedowns this season, while Luebke is ranked fifth in interceptions for seven in a season.
Grimsley is now ranked No. 2 for LHS quarterbacks, after passing for 1,640 yards this season.
Kicker Chad Anenson is ranked No. 1 for both extra points and field goals made in a season. In 2012, Anenson made 49 of 53 extra point attempts and also made 13 field goals.
Nine Mayer Lutheran players received some type of conference honor. All-Conference honorees included Grimsley, Phil Burfeind, Joel Burfeind, Weber, Luebke, and Diedrick. Gruenhagen and Otterstatter were named All-Conference Honorable Mention. Diedrick was named the Most Valuable D-Line player for the Minnesota River Conference, while Anenson was the conference’s Most Valuable Special Teams player. Grimsley, Phil Burfeind, Joel Burfeind, Luebke, and Gruenhagen also received All-Section awards, while Grimsley and Luebke were also named to the KDUZ All-Area team.
Team voted awards included: MVP Line (Diedrick), MVP Offense (Grimsley and Phil Burfeind), MVP Defense (Grimsley), Most Improved (senior Cole Carns), Christian Leader (Phil Burfeind), and MVP Special Teams (Anenson).
The Crusaders’ small senior class this season packed a lot of punch for the team and will surely be missed, both on and off the field next year.
“We had a very small senior class but they were very talented and played together as a team,” Aurich said. “I will miss the seniors.”
Grimsley, Phil Burfeind, and Luebke will all graduate this spring, along with Carns, Jake Coyle, Dustin Edmison, and Neal Kroells.
Buttenhoff, Weber, and Joel Burfeind will captain the team in 2013.