Frank Huie returned as Duluth Denfeld’s football coach in 2012, the same year the Hunters joined the Mississippi 8 Conference.

Since then, Denfeld has gone 1-18 against league opponents - its lone victory coming last year against rival Duluth East. Thus, don’t expect Huie to wax nostalgic as conferences disappear in favor of district scheduling.

“There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” the coach said Wednesday. “We have East, we have Monticello and we’re done with the Mississippi 8. We’re onto the playoffs and we’re onto district scheduling.”

The Hunters are down to their final two weeks in the punishing conference. They will travel across town tonight to play the Greyhounds at Ordean Stadium. Kickoff is 6 p.m.

Like Denfeld, East is in its third season in the Mississippi 8. And like Denfeld, the Greyhounds are 1-18 in the league - they beat the Hunters in 2012.

Indeed, it’s been a tough go of it for two proud programs. Both enter tonight’s contest 0-6. They have struggled to compete against schools where football is a different beast. Rosters are massive; so, too, are many of the players, who nonetheless ooze with athleticism.

One person who has coached at both of Duluth’s public high schools, Dave Mooers, says teams in the Mississippi 8 embrace a completely different mindset - it’s akin to hockey in the Northland.

Sheer participation numbers allow them to.

“We’ll go play a team like Rogers and they’ve got 40 seniors, and we might have 15, 16,” said Mooers, an assistant at East who coached at Denfeld for 22 years before resigning after the 2004 season. “Their programs are so much more developed (than those locally).”

Three Mississippi 8 teams - Rogers (No. 2), Chisago Lakes Area (4) and St. Michael-

Albertville (6) - are ranked in the top 10 of the latest Class AAAAA poll. Another,

St. Francis, is “receiving votes.”

Simply put, each week is an uphill climb.

Still, Denfeld and East have managed to stay upbeat. Greyhounds coach Joe Hietala, like Huie, insists progress is being made.

“I’m proud of all our players and I’m proud of our coaches,” Hietala said Wednesday. “We’ve definitely taken some lumps on Friday nights, but we show up on Mondays ready to work hard.”

Hietala said his players’ enthusiasm for wrestling back city bragging rights is unfettered.

“You definitely circle Denfeld as soon as you see the schedule,” the coach said.

Before the season started, Hietala didn’t know if he’d be circling Denfeld after this fall. The district format takes effect in 2015, and the Greyhounds are slotted in the 22-team North Central District; the Hunters are in the 26-team Northeast. For them to keep playing, cross-district scheduling partners were needed. That hurdle appears to have been cleared as North Branch, from the North Central, and Grand Rapids, from the Northeast, have agreed to cross over and play.

“East and Denfeld should be playing each other as long as high school football exists in Duluth,” Hietala said.

Denfeld is about to go from the second-smallest school in the Mississippi 8 to the

second-largest in its new district, behind only Grand Rapids.

East, meanwhile, will be paired with almost all of its current conference counterparts in the North Central.

Still, Hietala cited a talented freshman class, a well-stocked youth program and continuously improving offseason workouts as reasons for optimism.

“The hope is and the excitement is that we can match the level of play of these Mississippi 8 teams,” he said. “That’s what we’re looking forward to.”

Denfeld ended an eight-game losing streak to East - and a 19-game skid overall - by beating the Greyhounds 56-12 last year.

“It’s definitely motivation,” said Kenyatta Mooers, the Greyhounds’ senior quarterback.

Huie said the Hunters hardly have discussed that victory this week.

“We didn’t talk about it then and we don’t talk about it now,” he said. “We want to play at a certain level. Whether it’s East or not, we’d like to play at a certain level.”

That message appears to have gotten through to his players.

“We think about it, but we’re trying to keep it off to the side because this year’s completely different,” said senior offensive lineman Matt Patnaude, a captain for the Hunters.

r Dave Mooers was asked what it will be like coaching against Huie, his longtime assistant, and the Hunters after stalking sidelines in maroon and gold for more than two decades. He noted that he actually got his coaching start at East before replacing Marv Heikkinen at Denfeld.

“I’m in it for the kids,” Mooers said. “Whether I’m coaching at Denfeld or coaching here, it’s for the kids. I hope Denfeld plays well and I hope we play well. I hope it’s a great game.”