Tom Spaniol is the head football coach at a Minnesota high school he never knew existed.
The 2008 St. Cloud Cathedral graduate needed serious directions for his interview at South Ridge, located in Culver, about 27 miles northwest of Duluth in St. Louis County.
You get bonus points if you have heard of Culver, population 30.
“It’s probably less than that,” Spaniol said by phone earlier this week. “I don’t know. I haven’t really ever seen it.”
The school, Spaniol said, is actually located in New Independence Township.
Spaniol, a fifth-grade teacher, commutes from Duluth, where he earned his bachelor’s degree from the College of St. Scholastica.
An assistant in 2012, Spaniol became South Ridge’s head coach when the job opened in late July.
The Panthers were 5-1 heading into Friday night’s game with Mountain-Iron Buhl (5-1).
Spaniol believes South Ridge should have a No. 2 seed in its section of the Nine-Man playoffs.
The Panthers qualified for the state semifinals in 2012, going 10-2 and making an appearance in the Metrodome.
Never head of South Ridge? It’s a new school opened in 2011, combining the old Cotton and AlBrook (Saginaw) school districts. Enrollment on the Minnesota State High School League website is listed at 140 in grades nine through 12.
“It has been good,” Spaniol said. “(The new building) is one of the reasons I checked it out.”
The Panthers play in the Big North Conference and have a schedule that features a bunch of tiny Iron Range schools including Bigfork, Cherry, Chisholm, Ely, Northeast Range (Babbitt), Cook-Orr and Silver Bay.
“It was a difficult at first,” said Spaniol, lamenting all the additional paperwork and time commitment required of a head coach.
“When I got it, it was kind of a surprise. I found out in late July, early August.”
Added Spaniol: “I kept the same offense and defense, so that was a smooth transition.”
He also knew the personnel.
“That was huge,” he said.
Spaniol turns 24 Saturday. He just might be the youngest head football coach in the state and he certainly is one of the most successful ones.
Quarterback Kody Karppinen was second in the state with 23 touchdown passes heading into Friday. Wide receiver Drew Janke is second in the state with 12 TD receptions.
Janke was the quarterback in 2012.
Karppinen, a senior, wasn’t out for football. Obviously, it has worked out.
“They are two very good athletes,” Spaniol said.
Spaniol might have been best known at Cathedral for baseball, though he was a good football player, too. He continued his baseball career at St. Scholastica, but said he always had a passion for football, helping out Dean Taylor while he was Cathedral’s head coach.
His brother, Will Spaniol, a 2011 Cathedral grad, is helping coach at South Ridge. He’s also attending St. Scholastica.
Brother Jake Spaniol is a junior on this season’s Cathedral football team.
Learning the nine-man game, which is foreign to the Times’ area, took some doing.
Spaniol had never seen a nine-man game except for the Prep Bowl. It’s played on a more-narrow field, 40 yards wide instead of 53.
The games tend to be more wide open and high scoring. He said his biggest challenge is covering six eligible receivers with nine defenders instead of 11.
“We play a lot of man-to-man,” he said.
Offensively, South Ridge enjoys playing the spread, taking advantage of its speed.
With his new head coaching duties, he doubts he will work as an assistant baseball coach at Duluth Marshall, where he coached last spring.
He’s a football guy now.
“I’ve always liked football a lot,” Spaniol said. “In high school, it was my favorite sport.
“Coaching football was always a goal.”