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Prep football: Boyhtari a new voice in the huddle for Hunters

The Hunters’ assistant coach has worked with the team to increase players’ speed, strength and agility this season.

Denfeld football assistant coach Alissa Boyhtari at practice.
Denfeld football assistant coach Alissa Boyhtari sits on a bench on the sideline at Public Schools Stadium during practice Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. Denfeld football is the first program in the area to hire a full-time female assistant coach.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune
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DULUTH — Wednesday afternoon, Duluth Denfeld assistant coach Alissa Boyhtari was putting the players through some ability drills at Public Schools Stadium.

A player knocked over one of the banana hurdles they were working with, causing Boyhtari to reach down and reset the hurdle.

“Pick those feet up,” Boyhtari said.

At 5 feet, 7 inches tall, Boyhtari certainly isn’t short, but she almost completely disappears when the players huddle around her in their shoulder pads and helmets.

Boyhtari explains to the group at the Cloquet game Sept. 9 — a 28-12 loss — she noticed when they were carrying the ball they were either making too many moves or trying to make too big a cut and losing valuable speed just as defenders were closing in. She asked the players to make one small cut, instead of a bigger one.

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“Then I want you to explode through the cones,” she said, pointing up the field.

Denfeld football assistant coach Alissa Boyhtari at practice.
Alissa Boyhtari demonstrates a stretch for hip mobility during practice Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. Boyhtari is helping with strength and conditioning this season as well as coaching defensive backs and receivers.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Boyhtari, a 2013 Denfeld graduate, does not have coaching or playing experience in organized football — though she did play in the backyard with her family — but she’s bringing a new focus on speed and agility to the Hunters' training regimen.

Boyhtari was an All-Lake Superior Conference track athlete in 2013 for the Hunters, played hockey with the Duluth Northern Stars and was an All-Upper Midwest Athletic Conference cross country runner as a senior at Wisconsin-Superior in 2017.

After graduating from UWS, Boyhtari coached cross country at South Ridge and then last season she was part of the coaching staff for the St. Scholastica cross country team, but said she was beginning to burn out on the sports she had competed with.

“Ideally, I love to run, but the last thing I wanted to do was put on my shoes and go for a run,” Boyhtari said.

While she was in college she met current Hunters head coach and fellow Denfeld graduate Erik Lofald through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and stayed connected in the years since she graduated.

“We met up and I said that I missed working with kids,” Boyhtari said. “My favorite part about coaching is being able to teach and watch kids grow and I didn’t necessarily get to do that at the college level.”

Boyhtari, a florist in her day job, also wanted a chance to use her degree in exercise science, and Lofald’s strength and conditioning coaches from last season left to join Proctor.

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“We needed to replace that and I thought she would be the perfect person to bring our summer program to the next level,” Lofald said. “I also said, ‘But I don’t want it to be just a summer thing, I want you to learn to be a position coach.’”

Duluth Denfeld assistant coach Alissa Boyhtari talks to an official during the Hunters game with Rock Ridge
Duluth Denfeld assistant coach Alissa Boyhtari talks to an official during the Hunters game with Rock Ridge at PSS in Duluth on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

‘Speed is speed’

Boyhtari admits there is a “definitely a learning curve” in learning the special vocabulary of football coaches.

Lofald said he sees her working with the defensive back and wide receiver position groups. She may not have the difference between a nickel package and a dime down just yet, but while Boyhtari catches up she does something else to offer that may be more important regardless of position: speed.

“Speed is speed,” Boyhtari said. “Yeah, they’re running through guys, they’re getting hit and they’re making cuts one way or another, but speed is speed and form is form and being able to have those details down is important. Our word for the year for the team is ‘every.’ Every play, every practice, every person — all those types of things — and every detail matters.”

Boyhtari isn’t the only person in the Twin Ports training athletes in sports they’ve never played. She said her close friend, Paige Stratioti, is a “role model” for what she’s trying to do with the Denfeld football team. Stratioti, a 2011 Denfeld graduate, was a three-time All-American track athlete at North Dakota State University in Fargo.

Stratioti now co-owns and operates AP Training in Duluth and has worked with hockey players from some of the top programs in the area — including Denfeld, Hermantown and Duluth East — despite never playing hockey herself. She is also the strength coach for the CSS men’s hockey team.

“I’m not going to tell you how to play hockey, ever,” Stratioti said. “My job is to make sure that your fitness level meets the demands of your sport, that’s just black and white. She is right, speed is speed, power is power, and there’s no gray area with that. It’s very much what works and training that energy system. How you approach that and how you’re consistent with it in the training that you’ve delivered is everything.”

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Denfeld football assistant coach Alissa Boyhtari at practice.
Alissa Boyhtari demonstrates an exercise for Denfeld football players Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022.
Steve Kuchera / Duluth News Tribune

Working with male athletes has some unique challenges, according to Stratioti. It starts with setting boundaries, but also building trust with those athletes, much like any coach needs to do.

“The biggest thing I told her was don’t get caught up in what’s new and fancy or what the new best way to do this exercise is,” Stratioti said. “Focus on the basics and what you know and teach that really well.”

It doesn’t matter if she’s working with football players or cross country runners, with boys or girls, Boyhtari believes she can help the Hunters get faster and improve their agility and here’s the thing — it’s working.

“We did baseline tests at the beginning of the summer and then we retested them the very last workout of the summer before the season,” Lofald said. “We saw improvement, whether it was just marginal or we could really measure it. The guys that worked out this summer with her are the guys that are the fastest and in the best shape.”

Dylan Allen, a senior running back and linebacker for Denfeld, enjoyed the competitive nature of Boyhtari’s drills, which were typically races across the field or around the track at PSS. What’s more, Allen can see the improvement on the field. Last season, Cloquet blew out Denfeld 42-6 in their regular season game, but the Hunters were up 6-0 at halftime in the matchup last week.

Duluth Denfeld’s Dylan Allen (31) rambles down the field after scooping a second quarter fumble
Duluth Denfeld’s Dylan Allen (31) rambles down the field after scooping a second quarter fumble during the Hunters game with Rock Ridge at Public Schools Stadium in Duluth on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022. The play was whistled dead.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“This year they made it fun, which made guys want to show up and it’s showing on the field that we’re working hard,” Allen said. “We’re out here busting our butts and guys are enjoying it. It shows we’ve been doing it because last game we were up at halftime and nobody was tired. We were in it, it was just that Cloquet came out with a little better game plan.”

Rock Ridge’s first four drives ended in turnovers and they committed five in the game, leading to 18 Hunter points.

Allen and the boys on the Hunter squad aren’t the only ones appreciative of Boyhtari’s presence on the coaching staff. The Hunters have three girls in their program, including C-team freshman Angie Simone. Simone said not only can she see improvement in her conditioning, but even her asthma seems to have improved after working with Boyhtari. That’s not the only reason Simone likes having Boyhtari around.

“It’s a lot better to have a woman on the staff,” Simone said. “She can help me and the other girls on the team work better with our body types and it’s a lot easier to have somebody to talk to about that stuff.”

‘Something different’

Denfeld’s football program has struggled for much of the last decade to get wins and has only one since Lofald took over the program in 2019, a 50-20 win over Hibbing in 2020.

Duluth Denfeld’s Ryley McKeon (79) gives a fist bump to assistant coach Alissa Boyhtari after a second quarter touchdown
Duluth Denfeld’s Ryley McKeon (79) gives a fist bump to assistant coach Alissa Boyhtari after a second quarter touchdown during the Hunters game with Rock Ridge at Public Schools Stadium in Duluth on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Still, he has high hopes for the Hunters going forward and has long wanted the program to put as much emphasis on speed and agility training as much as it does the weight room. Boyhtari might not look like who he envisioned bringing those things to the Denfeld program, but she might just be the best person for the job.

“She’s a great coach, first and foremost,” Lofald said. “She understands it’s person over player and she fits our culture really well. I told her I believed in her and I thought she was going to pick it up quickly in the scene of how speed translates to position. She’s critiquing guys on things that she tapped into over the summer and now it’s translating to the field.”

For her part, Boyhtari is embracing the new role and is looking forward to watching the team improve and grow this season and beyond.

“This is a cool opportunity to be a part of something different, to be a part of a different culture and give back to where I came from,” she said. “But also it challenges me to use the things I learned in college — both as an athlete and as a student — and really dig deep to figure out what will help.”

More from Jamey Malcomb
The three coaches graduated from the school in the early 1990s and ended up playing college football together at Valley City State in North Dakota.

Duluth Denfeld assistant coach Alissa Boyhtari looks up as the Hunters warm up before their game with Rock Ridge
Duluth Denfeld assistant coach Alissa Boyhtari looks up as the Hunters warm up before their game with Rock Ridge at PSS in Duluth on Friday, Sept. 16, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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