RaJa Nelson, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound junior from Lakeville North, helped lead the Panthers to a 13-0 record and a Class 6A state title as they defeated defending champion Eden Prairie 28-21 in the Prep Bowl.
Nelson was named to the KARE-11 All-Metro team as an athlete after finishing with 142 carries for 874 yards and 20 touchdowns. He shined in the playoffs as he had 92 carries for 469 yards and 11 scores in five games. Nelson had 20 catches for 496 yards and eight more touchdowns. He added four interceptions and a kickoff return for a touchdown.
Nelson also plays for the Lakeville North basketball team.
Gopher Hole recently caught up with Nelson to learn about winning the state title and his college recruitment.
Gopher Hole: You guys won the state championship this season. What was the feeling?
RaJa Nelson: It was an unbelievable feeling. It was almost like speechless because we hadn’t been in that position since our school split with Lakeville South. Our coaches, we talked about it since summer, that we wanted this and we have a motto “Win it in everything that you do” and I believe that we showed that this whole year by showing up teams, whether they were good or not so good. I think we played as a team, so it was an unbelievable feeling, but it was amazing
Gopher Hole: Did it make it even more special beating Eden Prairie, because obviously they have been a dominant team in the state, winning 11 state titles?
RaJa Nelson: Of course, because you like said, they have been a dominant team and I felt that if we were going to play in the state championship, we needed to play the best team that there was. That was a great feeling as well.
Gopher Hole: You had to beat them twice in the same year. That is always tough, especially playing a good team. Was that something you guys were worried about or did you know that you could play against them?
RaJa Nelson: It is always hard to beat a team twice, especially really good teams, but I don’t think that we let that get in our head and we just went and treated it like another game, but beating them for a second time, did mean a lot, so that added on to that feeling and that was great.
Gopher Hole: How about your own individual season? You had a great year. I know that you were named Kare-11 All-Metro team as an athlete. How pleased were you with your own individual play this year?
RaJa Nelson: I was super blessed. I just want to owe that to my dad, my coaches, ETS (Performance, a local training facility), Trevor, everyone that was training. I am super blessed to have this opportunity to play in this league and at the top class.
Gopher Hole: I know that you are only a junior, but are you starting to hear from some colleges already?
RaJa Nelson: Yes, I’m talking to them. I’m going on visits.
Gopher Hole: Did you get a chance to go to many college games this fall?
RaJa Nelson: Yes, I did. I’ve been to quite a few. I’ve been to Minnesota, Michigan State, SDSU, Iowa State. Those types of schools.
Gopher Hole: What are you hearing from the homestate school, Minnesota?
RaJa Nelson: I haven’t heard too much yet, but they said that I am welcome anytime, which is obviously a great feeling, because it is home, so hopefully, I’ll start talking to them sometimes soon.
Gopher Hole: What Gopher game were you at?
RaJa Nelson: They were playing Iowa.
Gopher Hole: What would it mean to maybe have the chance to play Division I football?
RaJa Nelson: I would be so blessed if I could. It has always been a dream of mine and a goal and I don’t think that I am ever going to stop, striving for that goal. I am going to be patient through the process and I am going to wait and see what happens.
Gopher Hole: Have you thought much about at all? Did you go to many camps this past year?
RaJa Nelson: Yes. I lowered my camps down. I went to the Iowa State. I went to Notre Dame and then, I headed to USA opening.
Gopher Hole: What do you feel that you gain from that experience of going to those camps?
RaJa Nelson: A whole different atmosphere. You learn to like what you do like. You see what you don’t like. You meet coaches, which is obviously great. You want to get close with coaches. All camps are different, so it is nice to go to a variety of them.
Gopher Hole: I know that you play both sides of the field. Have you talked to many coaches about where you would play at the next level?
RaJa Nelson: I’ve talked to them, but haven’t mentioned a specific position. They’ve asked what my favorite is and I say, I don’t mind because I like playing them all the same.
Gopher Hole: Do you think that helps you a little bit because you are versatile? You’re not just only a defensive player. You can play both sides.
RaJa Nelson: Of course. It really helps with getting looks, because they see that I am an athlete. I can play both sides of the ball and I can see where I fit in with their program.
Gopher Hole: Do you think that helps you as a defensive player because you know as an offensive player what a guy wants to do and maybe shut that down?
RaJa Nelson: Oh, yeah. Of course. When I am playing receiver. I know weak spots on a defensive back. Where to attack and when I am on defense, playing DB, I know exactly what a receiver wants to do. For me, it makes it easier and I don’t have to re-learn anything or learn something new.
Gopher Hole: What would it mean to possibly have a chance to play for the homestate school, Minnesota?
RaJa Nelson: That would be a blessing. I’ve always wanted to play for them. Like you said, it is a hometown and their culture is just growing and it is getting really, really nice. You start to see a lot more people going there now, because you can see the development and how it has changed with P.J. Fleck being head coach, so I would be blessed if I could get an opportunity to play there.
Gopher Hole: I know that he is a little bit older than you, but Nathan Boe is there now. Did you know him very well at Lakeville North?
RaJa Nelson: I did play with him for a season. That kid grinds so hard. He actually pushed me because he wanted to see the best that I could be and I did the same for him. Seeing him there is like motivation to go there and maybe get a chance to play with him again.