Matt Lombardi, coach of the 2022 Class 6A Prep Bowl champion Maple Grove, is not surprised about this Friday's Centennial-Edina matchup.
His coaching peer, Prior Lake's Matt Gegenheimer, agrees. Both use the word "deserving" to describe the Cougars and Hornets. And the Matts are uniquely qualified to offer their opinion as the only two coaches to have faced both teams this season.
Sure, Gegenheimer and Lombardi would rather be preparing their own teams this week, but they agreed to offer their impressions from playing Centennial and Edina.
The word "physical" is synonymous with Centennial. What does that mean, exactly?
"Their offense keeps coming at you," said Gegenheimer, whose Lakers fell 26-23 in overtime on Nov. 3. "They keep finding ways to attack you. They will pound you, pound you, pound you and then connect on an explosive play over the top."
In the Class 6A semifinals, Centennial's 69-yard touchdown pass from Daylen Cummings to Josh Lee in the fourth quarter sealed the victory over Lakeville South. The previous three plays were runs.
Lombardi, whose team beat Centennial 41-28 on Sept. 14 for the Cougars' only loss this season, gushed, "This is the best offensive line Centennial has had in terms of getting movement."
Both coaches appreciated Cummings as a difference-maker.
"Their quarterback runs the options really well," Gegenheimer said. "He knows when to pull the ball."
Lombardi said: "He's a kid who finds a way, the kid that makes the plays they need made."
Defensively, the Cougars' strength is in their balance.
"They don't have a lot of weak spots," said Gegenheimer, who mentioned junior linebacker Caden Coppersmith as a player who makes a lot of tackles. "They are a good tackling team."
Lombardi: "Their defense is good at making teams drive the field. They don't give up extra yards after contact. They embody what their coach, Mike Diggins, is all about. They won't back down."
Cake-eaters? Only if we're talking marble.
Edina came back to defeat Prior Lake 33-26 on Sept. 29 to break a three-game losing streak. The game marked the first time John Warpinski rushed for 100 yards — he hasn't had fewer than 122 since — and started the Hornets on their current eight-game surge. The latter doesn't happen without the former.
"Their running back is who Joey Miller was for us at Wayzata," former Trojans defensive coordinator Lombardi said of the durable back who keyed Wayzata's 2005 Prep Bowl victory over Cretin-Derham Hall with 252 yards on a then-record 39 carries. "He's not sexy, but he gets every hard yard in the world. He's a tough sucker."
Warpinski revived Edina's season and brings 1,694 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns into Friday's game. His work on the ground opened up the Hornets' passing game.
Lombardi cited 6-4 junior receiver Meyer Swinney (56 catches, 840 yards and 10 touchdowns) as a major threat. Not that senior Sonny Villegas (58 catches, 830 yards and nine touchdowns) should be forgotten. Sophomore quarterback Mason West has found a way to keep both players satisfied.
"Their quarterback makes throws you don't see from most high school kids," Gegenheimer said.
On defense, Edina boasts senior free safety Owen Kemper, whom Lombardi regards as highly as Warpinski. With 121 tackles and five interceptions, Kemper becomes extra important against Centennial's option attack.
"They shut Eden Prairie down," Gegenheimer said of the Hornets' 28-7 semifinal victory. "Not too many teams can do that."
* Both coaches mentioned Edina's hungry and talented mix of older and younger players while pointing out that Centennial's core senior group has been built toward a special season.
* Gegenheimer said the strain of stopping Centennial running backs Maverick Harper and Ty Burgoon is only heightened in key situations when defensive end Marcus Whiting gets his number called. His 4-yard touchdown run forced overtime with Prior Lake. "It's the Eden Prairie model — when they need a first down or a touchdown, they bring in their best kid," Gegenheimer said.
* Lombardi puts the emphasis on ball control. Edina, he said, must prevent 10-minute Centennial drives. Meanwhile, the Cougars must get off the field on third downs. "We had Edina third-and-8 and fourth-and-5 or longer nine times," Lombardi said. "And they went 9-for-9."