As the SMB Wolfpack watched film on season-opening opponent St. Agnes on Wednesday, one St. Paul Academy and Summit School player leaned over to another and whispered.
"Is that against us?" he asked. It was. Much of the film was from St. Agnes' 61-22 victory over SPA last season. There wasn't much positive film from SPA's 2014 football campaign, which ended with an 0-8 record and a forfeited postseason game.
"We had, like, 13 or 14 guys," said Michael O'Shea, who played quarterback for the Spartans. "It's not even fun playing with that number of people anymore."
Things are different this season, as shown by the wide variety of practice jerseys lying across the film-room floor. Some were from SPA, some from Minnehaha Academy and some featured freshly printed SMB Wolfpack practice attire. SPA joined forces with Minnehaha and Blake -- which also struggled to field strong numbers -- this season to form the SMB Wolfpack co-op football team.
As of Wednesday, the Wolfpack had 65 players out for this year's team, which will compete in the Class 5A playoffs at the end of the season. That's a massive jump for the likes of Blake and SPA, which had trouble fielding JV teams a year ago.
Although players said Minnehaha likely provides the largest chunk of the roster, Wolfpack coach Collin Quinn -- the head coach at Minnehaha the past three seasons -- said the team is "well represented by each school."
The large number of players means more quality reps for everyone in practice. "We're getting more reps against other varsity players," said linebacker Sam Gittleman, a senior at Blake. "Whereas last year we'd have a freshman against a 280-pound senior, and there's no way that makes either person better. This way, we have more enthusiasm, better practices and better games."
It also means players won't be on the field for every snap of every game. O'Shea said "pretty much all the older kids" were on the field for offense, defense and special teams at SPA last season. "It's fun," O'Shea said of the large quantity of playing time, "but then at the same time you're not going to be able to play to your full potential."
Quinn said only a few players will play on both sides of the ball this season.
"I guess that's a little bit of a downside," said O'Shea, who also plays defensive back, "but we're going to be better as a team, and it's definitely refreshing."
Especially for SPA players, who saw their program go 7-64 over the past eight seasons. The relentless futility ate away at the numbers of the program, which dipped to a low point last season.
"There was kind of a stigma around our football team," O'Shea said. "It didn't seem like fun playing for our team to be honest, I guess."
But O'Shea said multiple SPA kids went out for football this year after not playing since as far back as seventh grade. "It mostly was because we have a bigger team," O'Shea said.
The expanded team features teammates who were foes less than a year ago. Minnehaha beat SPA 77-0 last year and beat Blake twice, by scores of 69-28 and 41-0. Blake beat SPA 35-20. There wasn't animosity among the players when the Wolfpack came together this season, but there was some skepticism.
"SPA, Blake, Minnehaha and Breck, all those schools are the biggest rivals in the (Independent Metro Athletic) Conference," O'Shea said. "But we started doing some captains' practices earlier in the spring, and I think that helped a lot to kind of know everybody and kind of break up those rivalries that people were worried about. In the end, it hasn't been that big of a deal."
Even the coaching staff features a mixture of all three schools. Quinn said there is at least one coach from each building on the staff.
"I thought it was going to be a challenge at first; it definitely was," said Dawson Rademacher, a senior running back and linebacker from Minnehaha, "but as we got to hang out more we definitely jelled, and I think we're excited to be a part of it."
There are no worries about having the numbers to play, practice or compete this season. There's just football, and a new beginning.
"We're real excited," Gittleman said. "We've never been able to have this much confidence before in ourselves, never been able to have this much depth ready, never been able to know that you're not going to be totally drained in the fourth quarter. You're still going to be able to give it your best effort the entire game.
"People are really excited about Wolfpack football," he added, "and I think it's going to be awesome."
Adapted from the Minneapolis Pioneer Press.