Lakeville North coach Brian Vossen was asked about his senior running back Wade Sullivan a lot this season. One recurring question seemed to perturb him.
“Did he play last year?”
Sullivan rushed for 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns as a junior, while leading the Panthers to the state quarterfinals.
“So, yeah, he played a little,” Vossen said.
Sullivan is one of the state’s top running backs yet has often been overlooked. That’s easy to do – at 5-foot-8, 170 pounds, he’s not hard to see past. Actually stopping him has proven far more difficult.
In his senior campaign, Sullivan ran for 1,900 yards and hscored 33 total touchdowns as the bedrock of a Lakeville North team that once again advanced to state. For that, Sullivan is the Pioneer Press East Metro football Player of the Year.
“Just kind of the complete package of a running back,” Burnsville coach Tyler Krebs said. “Great balance, great quickness, strength, vision. You just don’t see backs with that combination at the high school level.”
Yet none of those attributes are what Vossen admires most about his tailback. For Vossen, Sullivan is defined by his toughness.
Many of the state’s top teams have more than one back who can tote the rock 10-plus times a night. Totino-Grace, which rocked Lakeville North 42-14 in the Class 6A state quarterfinals and will play Eden Prairie for the state title on Friday, has a three-headed rushing monster with Gayflor Flomo, Ivan Burlak, and Brady Bertram.
Lakeville North had Sullivan.
Lakeville North Panthers running back Wade Sullivan goes airborne in attempt to avoid Burnsville Blaze linebacker Steph Olson, Jr. in the third quarter at Lakeville North High School in Lakeville during East Metro White 6A match up on Friday, Sept. 16, 2016. Lakeville North beat Burnsville, 28-7. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)
“He’s our guy. He’s going to carry it,” Vossen said. “We’ll give it to the fullback three or four times a game and we’ll pass, but if we’re running it to our tailback, he’s going to carry it on every play. Which means he’s got to take the reps in practice. And you’ve got to be tough. You can’t be a prima donna at the tailback position here.”
Sullivan eclipsed the 35-carry mark four times this season. Vossen marveled at how he ran full speed ahead into holes with no idea what was on the other side.
Sullivan did take some licks, and got nicked up along the way. He suffered a deep thigh bruise against Eastview, yet his playing status was never in doubt – to him, anyway.
“The coaches might have thought that I was going to sit out a game,” Sullivan said, “but I knew that I wasn’t going to.”
There was one week when Vossen texted Sullivan, asking him about how he felt on scale of 1 to 10. What was the reply? “Seven, but I was a six yesterday, so I’ll be an eight tomorrow,” Vossen recalled. “Then the next line just said, ‘I’m playing.’ ”
“That’s just who he is,” Vossen said. “Most kids, you tell them you don’t have to practice today, we just want you to take mental reps. You don’t pay attention for a second, and all of a sudden he’s in the drill again, and it’s like, ‘Wade, get out!’ It’s awesome to have that.”
Part of that toughness likely stems from wrestling. Sullivan won a state title as a freshman, and has finished in the top three in the state in each of the past three years. And Sullivan noted he has to play his position a little differently than bigger backs.
“It’s a mindset,” Sullivan said. “The bigger guys can just go through guys and they don’t have to worry about the cutting. I cut and go through guys.”
The only place where Sullivan’s size has hurt him is in recruiting. He has three scholarship offers from Division-II programs – Augustana, Minnesota-Duluth and Minnesota State-Mankato. He doesn’t have a decision date set, and hopes other schools hop into the race.
Vossen said he’s surprised a small Division-I program didn’t offer a scholarship during the season, though there’s still time. Krebs and Vossen are both confident that Sullivan will be successful at the next level, wherever he ends up.
“Whatever team gets him is getting a gold mine,” Vossen said. “If there’s a D-I program that reads the Pioneer Press — take a risk. It’s going to be worth it.”