Patrick Reusse
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Totino-Grace won six of the eight Class 4A football titles from 2003 to 2010 and then moved up, even with an enrollment below most of the schools that it was dominating.

The Eagles’ first season in the largest class, 5A, ended with a 49-7 drubbing from Eden Prairie in the state semifinals.

Eden Prairie and the largest of schools then were moved to a newly created Class 6A in 2012. Totino-Grace remained in Class 5A and won another state title with a 49-21 victory over Owatonna.

The whining about a powerhouse private school program resumed. And Totino-Grace opted up again, to 6A, for 2013.

Life among the mighty has been eventful, including the stretch from the 6A title game in 2014 to the season opener in 2016. Thirteen games, and Grace played four of those vs. the powerhouse among powers, Eden Prairie.

The Eden Prairie gantlet started with a 28-27 loss in the 2014 title game, included a season-opening loss and then a quarterfinal loss in 2015, and finally a 17-14 victory in the opener on Sept. 1, 2016.

There was a rematch, of course, in the 6A title game in late November — a 28-20 victory for Totino-Grace that might have been tastier than those seven other fully justified titles since Jeff Ferguson became coach in 2002.

“It was crazy, it was amazing,” Yvette Woell said. “To be part of the team, to see on a daily basis the character of those boys and the coaches … it was wonderful.”

That Totino-Grace team was tremendous. The Eagles defeated Blaine 21-20 in a state semifinal for the ages, and then completed a two-game sweep of Eden Prairie and a 13-0 season.

The circumstance was considerably different when Grace made its first 6A final in 2014. The Eagles had a 4-0 start that included one-point wins over Hopkins and Spring Lake Park, and then they were thumped 28-0 by Maple Grove on Sept. 26, 2014.

That was the least of the night’s losses for the Eagles. Rachel Woell, a Totino-Grace senior, was in a wheelchair near the sideline for the first half, too frail and weak for her parents to allow her to stay. She left the stadium and died before the Friday night was over.

Rachel had been recruited by Ferguson as a student manager two years earlier. In 2013, a new brain tumor was diagnosed. She had survived brain cancer as an 8-year-old — and also a stroke as a baby — but this time it was terminal for the only child of Yvette and Jamie Woell.

In the search for comfort, little was more uplifting for Rachel than the connection to Totino-Grace football. Early in the fall of her death, Rachel and her pal Kez Flomo, a running back described as “fierce and physical” in the Star Tribune, were voted as homecoming queen and king.

Rachel’s story and the football team’s crusade to honor her was well-chronicled in the Twin Cities media during Grace’s playoff run.

What was discovered during a drop-in on the first week of football practice is that the story is not over. There are still green laces in football shoes and other patches of Rachel’s favorite color — still RW initials — on individual uniforms five seasons later.

And, mostly, there is Mom, Yvette Woell, moving around with a clipboard, keeping the Eagles on the schedule, answering questions from the 68 varsity players (sophomore to senior) and from the student managers.

“Yvette doesn’t miss a practice, doesn’t miss a game. Hasn’t in five years,” Ferguson said. “If this was a college program, she would be our director of football operations.”

Woell overheard this tribute and waved it off.

“When Rachel needed help to get around, I came to practice every day,” she said. “The players were so kind, so loving to us … they were family. And I just kept coming to practice.

“These are different boys, but they still are family for me.”

Totino-Grace will have roughly 700 students in the top four grades. The football numbers also have gradually declined. The Eagles followed the championship with a 6-4 record in 2017, the most losses under Ferguson, and then 2-7 in 2018.

“We always figured out a way to win those close games,” Ferguson said. “Last season, we figured out how to lose those. We have 21 starters back, though, some very good players. I think we’ll be OK.”

Ferguson smiled slightly and added: “We also could be 0-4, starting with Lakeville South, Maple Grove, Blaine and Centennial. Not much room for error in 6A.”

So how was 2018 for Yvette Woell — a 2-7 season for her football family?

“It was different, but these are my boys,” she said. “They are always winners to me.”