Prep football: Denfeld seeks glory days redux
Erik Lofald has his own Al Bundy moment, and he has proof just in case skeptics don’t believe the first-year Duluth Denfeld football coach.
Lofald has a laminated News Tribune article from October 1996 when the Denfeld senior scored four short touchdowns in a 45-13 win over Cloquet in a section semifinal on the frozen tundra of Public Schools Stadium.
“It’s an Al Bundy moment when you score four touchdowns,” Lofald said of the buffoonish “Married With Children” character.
Denfeld lost to rival Duluth Central in the section final that year, and within a decade had fallen off the local football map.
Years of misery followed until the Hunters went 6-4 a year ago in coach Frank Huie’s final season at the helm. Denfeld was just 10-54 after Huie, a former head coach, was rehired before the 2012 season.
“There wasn’t a lot of winning football after 2001,” said Lofald, who was an assistant for the previous six seasons. “For me it was disappointing because when we were growing up, Denfeld had very good football teams. The culture was that we won, so it was disappointing coming back to see that we had lost our identity.”
Lofald is out to change that identity. Despite a substantial loss of players to graduation, the Hunters are seeking to keep the winning going all the way down to the youth level. Lofald says an investment is being made with younger players, encouraging them to stick with the sport to provide benefits down the road.
“We’re trying to change the culture,” Lofald said. “For a long time, there was an expectation that Denfeld can’t win. But our soccer teams have had success and we’ve had success in other sports, so why not football?
“We want to build on that success. We definitely want to have a culture where we expect to win.”
In an effort to capitalize on interest in the program and to utilize the talent correctly, the Hunters are fast-forwarding their offense to the 21st century. Gone are remnants of the wing-T and in its place is a zone-read system.
“We want to play with pace and want to throw the ball a little bit more,” Lofald said. “We are moving away from that traditional wing-T offense — basically Northeastern Minnesota football. It suited us well for a long time — I am a product of the wing-T and a coach of the wing-T — but when we looked at the kids we graduated and who was coming up, this was the offense we felt suited us the best.”
Junior quarterback Kade Shea isn’t arguing. Shea says the new system will use more run-pass option looks where the quarterback reads the defense first before deciding whether to hand the ball off or throw.
“We have some talented backs and receivers. Not as many quantity but some quality guys,” Shea said.
Shea says the excitement level is high after the first winning season since 2009.
“Coach Huie was a great guy, but I really like what Coach Lofald is doing with the program,” he said. “We are doing things differently. He is taking some of the good things Coach Huie did and putting them in and then improving on some of the things that Coach Huie could have done better at.”
Likewise, senior lineman Grant Steger sees the changes as a positive.
“It’s been a big adjustment getting used to all the new coaches. But they are fitting in well with us as much as we are with them,” the 6-foot-2, 220-pound tackle said early in fall practice. “(Coach Lofald) knows his stuff and all he wants is us to improve every day and take something out of practice. He is very enthusiastic and has a lot of ideas.”
Other seniors the Hunters are relying on include center Johnny Nguyen, lineman Owen Johnson and running back Tyrell Beckom.
“They’ve been enthusiastic and excited, which makes me excited,” Lofald said. “We are definitely going to take our offense in a different direction. We have very capable quarterbacks at every level. We have an exciting freshman class, and they’ve thrown the ball at the youth level so why not do that up (on varsity)?”
Elsewhere in 7AAAA:
Hermantown responded to Cloquet handing the Hawks their lone regular-season defeat by beating the Lumberjacks in the 2018 section final two weeks later.
A relatively inexperienced side seeks to repeat.
Senior lineman Jeb Paczynski, senior middle linebacker Macade Cannon (55 tackles), senior wide receiver/cornerback Noah Torgerson and junior defensive tackle Robbie Thorsten are back in an attempt to push Hermantown to an eighth state tournament berth.
That run a year ago stopped dead in its tracks with a 44-0 Class AAAA quarterfinal loss to Willmar.
Cloquet was denied a third straight section title and ninth overall state berth, but the Lumberjacks return one of the Northland’s most athletic backfields. Fullback Marcus Pokornowski gained more than 1,000 yards last season and is joined by returning starters Mason Erickson (center), Dane Kiehn (defensive end), Trey Harkins (safety) and Derek Rengo (linebacker).
In Section 7AAAAA:
Senior quarterback Caden Edwards and his twin brother, Jaxon, a wide receiver/defensive back, lead a bevy of skilled-position players back at Duluth East.
Caden Edwards, a left-hander, threw for 932 yards last season, while fullback Elijah Leonard rumbled for 684 yards and six TDs. Leonard, like senior offensive lineman Blake Wiseman, are being recruited by NSIC schools, East coach Joe Hietala said.
Senior tailback Derek Daniels and senior wide receiver/defensive back Dekarri Davis also return.
“We’re bigger than we’ve been in at least 10 years. It’s fun to see from an aesthetic standpoint, that you are standing around guys who are a lot bigger than you,” the 5-foot-8 Hietala said. “That hasn’t been the case for quite a while. I’m not sure that translates into being epically better as a football team, but it makes you feel good. When my linemen are smaller than I am, that usually doesn’t bode very well.”
In Section 7AAA:
Two Harbors snapped a 41-year drought between its only other state tournament trip as a senior-laden squad posted three shutouts and held opponents to just 14 points per game in going 8-3.
The Agates have many holes to fill on each side of the ball and will rely heavily on senior captains Cole Komarek (QB/LB), Sam Johnson (RB/DB) and Karsen Holm (RB/S) throughout the season.
Proctor hopes to bounce back from a 2-8 season and a winless Northeast Red Division record. It helps to have the Rails’ QB (Carter St. Germaine), top wideout (Dylan Hom), tight end/linebacker (Cole Johnson), running back Cody Urie, linemen (Dale Pearson, Ethan Bakke) and defensive backs (Keegan Dinh, Isaac Mosher) back.
Esko suffered through a three-win season a year ago that included five one-possession defeats, and pins its hopes on a speedy team that will utilize wideout Dylan Vinje (48 receptions, 613 yards). Fellow seniors Preston Lowe, Keegan Akervik and Trevor Spindler (three interceptions) head up a defense that allowed an average of 20 points a game.