The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Chad Courrier

November 24, 2011

Courrier: Nelson in a category of his own

— In the last 20 years of covering high-school football in the area, there have been several standout players and teams.

But there are three local players who had that “wow” factor.

At Mankato West, Eric Stenzel was an imposing figure on the team that won a state championship in 1999. He was bigger, stronger and faster than just about everyone else, though a promising career at the University of Minnesota was shortened by injury.

Craig Dahl was the centerpiece of some good Mankato East teams in 2001 and 2002. As a quarterback, he made his mark with his legs, using his athleticism and work ethic. Given that he rarely played defense at East, it was tough to predict how he’d do at North Dakota State, but he’s become a starting safety in the NFL. Enough said.

Philip Nelson just played his last game at West, ending three seasons of spectacular quarterback play. His season numbers were unbelievable, passing for 2,784 yards and 35 touchdowns and rushing for 1,243 yards and 20 touchdowns.

His career numbers are absurd, completing 490 of 801 passes for 7,564 yards and 94 touchdowns, all of which ranks second in state history. He set a state record with 135 total touchdowns, combining his rushing and passing touchdowns.

In the championship game, where some might have thought he struggled, he finished with 307 yards passing and two touchdowns and 183 yards rushing and one score. That might have been the season totals for a West quarterback 20 years ago, but the expectations have been so high for Nelson that anything short of perfect is sometimes puzzling.

Soon, The Associated Press will announce its all-state team, which includes a player of the year, and Mr. Football will be announced in early December.

Nelson committed early to the University of Minnesota, which seemed like a risky move on his part. He’d built himself up physically, and the mental side of the game is where he’d always excelled, and it seemed like he could maybe do better than the Gophers.

But he obviously sees something in that program and coach Jerry Kill that he likes, and hopefully, he’ll take a redshirt season so that he, and the players around him, can improve enough to get things going in the right direction.

Will he be successful? It’s tough to predict that because of injuries or changes in the program, but after watching the last four seasons, it’s certain that Nelson will do what he can to maximize his talents.

The main characteristic of these three local football players is work ethic, and all went humbly about their business of being great without bringing attention to themselves.

When Stenzel left West, you wondered if another player like him would ever come along, and while there have been plenty of good defense players in the last 12 seasons, none have been as imposing and dominant as Stenzel.

When Dahl left East, you wondered if another player like him would come along, and that position has struggled in the program for most of the the last 10 seasons.

Nelson is the most accomplished quarterback in West history, and there have been some pretty good ones, from Jay Nessler to Jordan Stolp to Dan Dobson to Ray Teachout. Each raised the bar a little bit, but Nelson has put the bar nearly out of reach for some talented young quarterbacks already in the program.

Chad Courrier is a Free Press staff writer. To contact him, call 507-344-6353 or e-mail at ccourrier@mankatofreepress.com or check out his local sports blog.

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Chad Courrier