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Top 'Dogs: Coaches pick UMD to win conference football title

Minnesota Duluth football coach Bob Nielson doesn't put a lot of stock in polls, to the point where he didn't know where the Bulldogs were picked to finish in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference preseason coaches' poll released Wednesday ...

Minnesota Duluth football coach Bob Nielson doesn't put a lot of stock in polls, to the point where he didn't know where the Bulldogs were picked to finish in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference preseason coaches' poll released Wednesday morning.

The Bulldogs are favored to win their fourth straight league title with 167 points and 11 first-place votes. St. Cloud State, which fell 20-17 in overtime to UMD in last year's playoffs, is picked to finish second with 155 points, including the three remaining first-place votes.

The Bulldogs, winners of two of the past three NCAA Division II national championships, begin practice Saturday, while Monday's practice will serve as a media day.

"It's nice to be recognized, but we've obviously got a lot of work to do," said Nielson, who was reached by phone on Wednesday night as he drove back from hockey meetings in the Twin Cities. "We have to understand we have to play our best football every week, because everybody we play is going to play their best. It's a good position to be in, but at the same time, it's a challenging one as well."

Augustana (145 points) is picked to win the South Division and is third overall. Winona State (125) and Minnesota State-Mankato (115) round out the top five.

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UMD opens the season Sept. 3 at Augustana in a rematch of last year's regional championship game, won 24-13 by the Bulldogs.

"If you look at our schedule, we play the rest of the teams in the top 5," Nielson said. "I think it's safe to say our conference schedule is pretty tough."

UMD senior outside linebacker Rob Huberty, who will serve as team captain this fall with senior left tackle Cory Flesch, was chosen North Division Preseason Defensive Player of the Year, and junior quarterback Chase Vogler was named North Division Preseason Offensive Player of the Year.

The Bulldogs enter the season riding a 30-game NSIC winning streak, just four shy of the league record.

"The places where we were concerned last year are the places where we have experience this year," Nielson said. "We've got all five starters back on the offensive line, so hopefully that's a great place to build upon."

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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