The Bemidji Lumberjacks football team becomes the eighth and final fall unit to begin play when it travels to Willmar tonight to take on the Cardinals.
The two teams met for the first time in history last fall with Bemidji winning 25-12 at the Chet.
It went on to its third straight 3-6 season under Dwight Jensen who departed after last spring to return to the West Coast for family reasons.
Back at the helm is Troy Hendricks who guided the Jacks for seven seasons from 1995-2001 posting a 31-37 record that included two of the Jacks only three winning seasons since 1990. The third came in 2002 under Jim Carlson after Hendricks stepped aside to devote his full time to his Athletic Director's post.
He left the school district after the 2003 year to enter private business but returned last fall to assume duties as Dean of Students and Activities Director at the Middle School.
He is undertaking the project of rebuilding the Jacks grid program that has suffered badly from a lack of numbers in recent years.
There is an minimal improvement this year, mostly in a 45 player freshman class, but still far short of the numbers needed to compete at the upper levels of Minnesota football.
Drop to Class 4A
Bemidji will get some relief this fall, dropping from 8-5A to 7-4A and shifting back to the east for tournament play against the Duluth area schools plus Grand Rapids.
Cloquet and Hermantown joins East, Denfeld and Central in this year's section with Central playing its final season before probably closing its doors next spring.
Bemidji graduated only 13 lettermen last year but most were key performers, many playing two ways much of the year.
Chief among them were quarterback Simon Anderson, fullback/linebacker Travis Greenwaldt, tight end/safety Joe Kingery, speedster Nate McGriff, the team's scoring leader his final two years and tight end-linebacker Dan Sadek.
Other starters were Trace Jahner, Auston Zetah, Jared Hertel, Alex Hengel and Zach Warriner.
This year's cast lists 17 seniors, 22 juniors and 26 sophs, two fewer seniors, five less juniors and three more sophs than played last fall.
It shows only eight other lettermen who were regulars though several others saw playing time in the late going due to injuries and fatigue.
Among them are fullback/linebacker Evan Olson, linemen Josh Smith, Jake Gruber and Luke Dudley, linebacker Cody Fear and wideouts Czar Woods, Matt Hietala and Carey Woods, the Woods brothers both two way performers. Junior linemen Ernie Heifort and Chris Madson saw frequent play down the stretch.
But a number of the upper classmen didn't play last season and several sophomores are pressing to step into the starting cast.
One is Mitch Hendricks who will likely take over the quarterback role from Anderson this year backed by junior Ryan Stevens.
Replacing McGriff and Greenwaldt, who accounted for 95 percent of the ground game, and Anderson, who threw all but one completed pass in 2008 will be major problems to be overcome. McGriff scored six touchdowns and Greenwaldt five while Anderson passed for seven.
Kingery, Hengel, McGriff, Sadek and Greenwaldt were the most frequently used receivers.
Willmar went 2-7 last year and also faces numbers problem with just nine seniors listed on their roster. Their wins came over Little Falls and Sartell.
They also have a new coach with Jon Konold replacing Ken Heitzman who stepped down following last fall.
This could be the final meeting of the two teams with Bemidji expected to alter its schedule next fall to take on the section 7 teams it will face in the playoffs.
The return of Grand Rapids and possibly Detroit Lakes would be welcomed both long-time rivals in past years. East, Denfeld and Cloquet were also once regulars on the Jacks slate.
Opening tonight on offense will be Hendricks (135-soph) at quarterback, Czar Woods (162-sr) at halfback and Olson (230-sr) at full backed by Kevin Nelson (170-jr) who will alternate into a three s deep back formation.
Carey Woods (165-soph) and Cole Bardwell (160-jr) will alternate at split end with Will Bruestle (180-jr) the tight end.
Zach Solheim (185-jr) and Chris Dudley (235-sr) will be the tackles, Madson (240-jr) and Jake Gruber (180-sr) the guards and Lukas Dudley (200-sr) the center. Grant Richardson (210-jr) will move in at tackle when Solheim shifts to an end slot.
On defense, Corey Huber (180-sr) will start at nose guard flanked by Logan Knutson (175-jr) and Frank Mays (212-sr)
Cody Fear (170-jr) and Collin Hilmer (165-sr) will be the outside backers with Olson and Heifort (205-jr) inside.
The Woods brothers will be at the corners with Matt Hietala (180-sr) and Forrest Moe (165-jr) at the safeties.
Under this alignment, Olson will be the only player going both ways.
2008 25 Willmar 12