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AXEMEN: Regular season campaign begins today

Axemen running back Warren Matthews Jr. finds an opening around the right side during the exhibition game against Cedar Rapids. The Axemen begin their regular season tonight against Green Bay. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — Tonight, it begins for real.

After a pair of exhibitions against the Cedar Rapids Titans, the Bemidji Axemen kick off their inaugural regular-season Indoor Football League campaign tonight against the Green Bay Blizzard.

And despite two losses against the Titans in the exhibition season — a 42-30 defeat at the Sanford Center and last week’s 22-11 loss in Cedar Rapids, Iowa — Axemen head coach Robert Fuller said he wasn’t too concerned with the scorelines as much as he was excited about the experience his players gained.

“The biggest thing for me as a head coach is, I approach those games as an evaulation tool,” Fuller said. “We wanted to do well and win, but the evaluation and experience our players would gain was the most important thing. So when we came into this Green Bay game it’s not the first time we’re seeing live action.”

In the two games, the Axemen’s offense has been a mixed bag but defensively Fuller said he likes where the team is headed.

“Our defense has played well and we kind of expect that early on,” Fuller said. “Offensively we did so much rotating that it was hard to develop that real sense of continuity.”

Quarterback Hunter Wanket, who will start tonight against the Blizzard, said last week’s 22-11 loss wasn’t what he wanted to see but he likes the team’s potential.

“Scoring 11 points isn’t what you do in indoor football,” he said. “But I think it brought some light some things we need to work on, so we’re ready for it.

“The biggest thing is I see is the potential. I think we have an unlimited ceiling, so that’s exciting. We just have to harness the energy and come together as a team to utilize it.”

Wanket threw for 108 yards on 10-for-26 attempts in the two exhibition games.

Joining him in the backfield will be Warren Matthews Jr. and DeMario Pippen. Fuller said Matthews would start but both are versatile.

“I think they’re pretty diverse and should rotate in as wide reciever as well,” he said.

Defensively, Fuller said he will look to defensive back DeQuan Starling to lead a talented group.

Starling played for Green Bay last season so this game carries special significance for him — even if the team does have a new head coach and a few new players. He described the Axemen defense as “high-motor” and knows they’re going to have to work to defeat the Blizzard offense, “We’re going to always be on the ball and always be where we need to be,” Starling said. “I think we’re disciplined. We have some good schemes, it’s just a matter of executing and I think we’ve done well.”

Fuller also coached in Green Bay. He was the Blizzard’s head coach in 2012 and the first six games of 2013. He led the team to a United Conference Championship and was named IFL Coach of the Year.

He said he didn’t know much about the personnel on this year’s team — the rosters have changed so much since last season — but thinks they’ll ba good first test for the Axemen.

“They’re young but very talented,” Fuller said. “They’re going to be a very well-coached, well-disciplined team. It should be a great matchup for us right out of the gate.”

“We want to make a statement and we need to make a statement to this league,” Wanket said of the regular-season opener. “Being a new franchise is very difficult but I think we’re ready for the challenge. We’re excited for it.”