Prep football: MLWR tries to bounce back from season of rarities
Bounced from the postseason abruptly by his alma mater, Moose Lake-Willow River football coach Dave Louzek confronted a harsh reality last fall. Free time. He didn't much care for it. There was nothing special about Louzek's after-school slate. T...
Bounced from the postseason abruptly by his alma mater, Moose Lake-Willow River football coach Dave Louzek confronted a harsh reality last fall.
He didn’t much care for it.
There was nothing special about Louzek’s after-school slate. Thanks to the Rebels’ 10-year state-tournament streak, he was accustomed to spending late-October and November afternoons on the field, preparing for the next opponent. But a 42-40 loss to Rush City in the opening round of the Section 7AA playoffs unceremoniously ushered in the offseason.
And an open schedule once the school day ended.
“What do you do now?” Louzek remembers thinking. “Usually you’re still busy, but now you have to find something to do.”
MLWR, the region’s most consistent winner since the turn of the century, experienced numerous oddities during a campaign that opened with customary promise. With star running back Bryceton Butkiewicz headlining the offense, an 11th straight state tournament appeared well within reach. And the Rebels looked the part early, starting 3-0. But the wheels started to wobble in Week 4.
A noncompetitive 38-14 loss to Mora touched off a four-game skid, MLWR’s first since 1993, and it instigated the Rebels’ first sub-.500 finish since 1999, Louzek’s debut. MLWR was an innocent bystander as Royalton represented Section 7AA at state, where old nemesis Caledonia claimed its seventh Class AA title in a decade.
All good things must come … yada, yada, yada. Doesn’t make it any easier.
“It was hard - lot of tears,” senior quarterback/defensive back Ian Coil said. “It wasn’t a good thing, but it had to happen at some point.”
The streak, much like MLWR’s string of 62 consecutive regular-season victories, which ended in 2014, was a source of immense program and community pride. Like anything that occurs with that kind of regularity, however, an air of inevitability began to emerge. The last time somebody other than the Rebels won Section 7AA was Esko in 2005.
“One of the things that happened, you have success for so many years that the kids kind of just start to expect it. They forget about how much work goes into actually achieving it,” said Louzek, whose career record is 169-38. “All the little extras that go into being a successful team outside of practice, some of those things had dropped off.”
MLWR can start to wash away the sour aftertaste of 2016 when Hermantown visits Thursday night. The opener for both clubs kicks off at 7 p.m.
For the Rebels, it’s a fresh start. This time of year always is, regardless of how the previous season ended. Louzek sees no reason to dwell on the past, not with new players, new strengths, new weaknesses and a new identity.
“He maybe mentioned it at the beginning of the season. Otherwise, he hasn’t repeatedly brought it up like it was some big failure or disgrace,” senior guard/linebacker Dilon Louzek, the coach’s son and one of four MLWR captains, said.
Replacing some of Butkiewicz’s production - 1,157 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns - will require a team effort. Coil says senior Colton Little and juniors Anakin Oswald and Trent Juhl are up to the task. Butkiewicz graduated with 3,574 career yards on the ground and 68 total TDs.
“It’s definitely not going to be easy, but the kids aren’t afraid to fill the big shoes that he left behind,” Coil, another captain, said.
Aidan Szczyrbak opened some eyes this summer, including a stellar showing at the North Dakota State camp, where he was named the most valuable defensive lineman among juniors. Strong and aggressive inside, Szczyrbak could soon step out of his older brother’s shadow. Ezra Szczyrbak, the News Tribune’s All-Area Player of the Year in 2013, is a redshirt junior at Division I Northern Iowa.
Aidan Szczyrbak and a handful of his teammates might find it difficult to leave the field this fall. That’s because for the second year in a row, the Rebels won’t have their typical depth. The talent is there, Dave Louzek said, but the numbers aren’t. The situation should rebound in the near future - MLWR’s younger classes are swollen - but the immediate concern is staying healthy. The Rebels can’t afford too many injuries.
If their health cooperates, Louzek said, anything is possible. Even a return trip to state, which would go a long way in erasing the pain MLWR felt following its first one-and-done postseason since 2002.
“That’s what (Louzek) said, the only way to avoid that feeling is to go back to state and hopefully win it,” Coil said.
Roster makeovers at Ely, Cromwell-Wright Cromwell-Wright and Ely were the class of Nine-Man football in the Northland a year ago.
The Cardinals averaged 51.2 points per game, allowed 7.9 and compiled a 12-1 record while reaching the state semifinals - where they participated in the inaugural prep football game at U.S. Bank Stadium, a 38-29 loss to Cleveland/Immanuel Lutheran.
The Timberwolves, meanwhile, scored 35.9 points a night and yielded 11.7 en route to their fourth state tournament in five years. There, Ely was ousted by Cromwell-Wright in the quarterfinals.
The two squads have something else in common: Both return just a pair of starters on both sides of the ball.
For the Cardinals, Zion Smith and Co. have graduated. Six of the team’s 12 seniors were four-year starters. Smith, who shared the News Tribune’s All-Area Player of the Year with Proctor’s John Aase in 2016, passed for 1,295 yards and 32 TDs, rushed for 796 and 13, and tallied 118 tackles on defense.
Players like that don’t come along very often.
Senior Nic Johnson rushed for 480 yards on a meager 25 carries (17.2 yards per touch) last year, and caught 15 passes for 383 yards. Junior Cameron Cahoon (566 yards rushing) is another threat.
Ely coach Brian Lamppa knows the feeling.
He’s dealing with the absence of Josh Heiman, who’s off to West Point after capping his prep career with 4,816 rushing yards and 57 total TDs. Heiman amassed 1,788 and 1,522 yards on the ground as a junior and senior, respectively.
The Timberwolves will have a rarity for high school football - a four-year starter at QB in Carter Gaulke. Experience elsewhere is limited.
“We lost 11 seniors from last year, so we are a little thin,” Lamppa said.
Ely enters Thursday’s opener vs. Ogilvie riding a 16-game regular-season winning streak.
In Section 7, North Woods could make a play for the Timberwolves’ crown. The senior-laden Grizzlies, who open at Cromwell-Wright on Friday, are coming off an 8-2 campaign. Both losses were to Ely. QB Tate Olson passed for 1,037 yards and 13 TDs as a junior.
Briefly New coaches at the area’s smaller schools (Nine-Man through Class AA) include Josh Dehn at Floodwood and Derek Malner at Eveleth-Gilbert. Dehn takes over for Larry Heggedahl and Malner replaces Wayne Roberts.
- Barnum, which moves up a class, to AA, was slated to host Aitkin on Friday night, but that game was bumped up a day. The Bombers and Gobblers now will meet at 7 p.m. Thursday. One other Barnum scheduling note: no Little Brown Jug rivalry game against Moose Lake-Willow River this season.
- Once again, Cherry isn’t fielding a varsity football team.