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Prep football returns: Teams ready for early kickoff

Before the first deep-fried pickle on a stick has been consumed at the Great Minnesota Get-Together, well before the calendar flips to September and before many have concluded their school shopping, prep football returns across the state today.

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Duluth East wide receiver Mark Holliday celebrates in the end zone after catching a touchdown pass last season against Duluth Denfeld in the Greyhounds’ only win of the season. (2014 file / News Tribune)

Before the first deep-fried pickle on a stick has been consumed at the Great Minnesota Get-Together, well before the calendar flips to September and before many have concluded their school shopping, prep football returns across the state today.

It's back 15 days before Labor Day, meaning three weeks' worth of games will be played before the first day of most classes.

But the season officially is underway in the Northland as of 1 p.m. today. That's when, among others, Duluth Denfeld makes the short trek across town to face nemesis Duluth East. It's one of a handful of rivalry reunions on Kickoff Saturday.

Despite the earlier-than-normal start to the season, despite it being a Saturday afternoon in August and despite the different district affiliations for the Greyhounds (North Central) and Hunters (Northeast), it's still a biggie.

It's still the "city championship," East coach Joe Hietala said last week.

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"Wherever it falls in the season, it wouldn't matter," Hietala added. "It's the biggest game of the year for us, every year, no matter when it is. Whatever happens, it's definitely going to set a tone for our season one way or the other, good or bad."

Hietala's headset-wearing counterpart, Denfeld's Frank Huie, expects a different vibe today than if the Hunters and 'Hounds hooked up on, say, a Friday night in late September. Fewer fans, perhaps. Still, Huie won't have to work overtime to get his players revved up - though he did get an assist this week from former Denfeld coaching icon Marv Heikkinen, who visited Hunters practice and shared a few words of encouragement.

"Are the kids not going to play as hard because of that (untraditional game time)? Absolutely not," Huie said. "Are they still going to want to desperately win the game? Absolutely so."

Teams had just two weeks to prepare for Week 1 as opposed to the customary three. That left little time to tinker. Consequently, expect basic, no-frills football.

"You don't have time to play around or dabble around or try stuff out because you have a tough opponent and it's a fantastic benchmark," Esko coach Bill Hudspith, whose team kicks off at home vs. Cloquet, said last week.

Lumberjacks coach Tom Lenarz agreed, saying Cloquet will keep doing what's earned it the past two Section 7AAAA titles.

"Our approach is going to be to just be solid in what we're doing," Lenarz said. "We might not have everything in for the first game, but that's OK."

Familiar foes meet elsewhere today as the 2015 campaign begins with a bang.

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Nine-time defending Section 7AA champ Moose Lake-Willow River is at Barnum, with the Little Brown Jug on the line. The Rebels and Bombers haven't met since 2012, a 21-6 MLWR victory that started the Rebels toward a second-place finish at the Class AA state tournament. Barnum also qualified for that year's Class A tournament.

The Cloquet-Esko game was bumped up to 5 p.m. because of weather concerns. Across the state, at least 58 games have been moved to earlier in the day since forecasts show strong potential for heavy rain and/or thunderstorms in the evening.

It wouldn't be the first batch of season-openers thus impacted.

When MLWR hosted Hermantown at the outset of 2013, the teams had to retreat to Willow River High School in the third quarter as rain pounded down, lightning flickered across an ominous sky and a tornado warning surfaced nearby.

With any luck, similar scenarios will be avoided this afternoon and evening and teams can focus on starting their seasons in style.

Early as it might be.

Related Topics: FOOTBALL
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