Rejuvenated Hilltoppers bury recent strugglesMarshall (5-3) takes a No. 2 seed into a Section 7AA quarterfinal home playoff game against Deer River at 3:30 p.m. today.
By: Rick Weegman, Duluth News Tribune
Senior-to-be Than Serre sat in on the interview process for hiring a new Duluth Marshall head football coach last spring, asking each candidate the same question.
After years of adhering to former coach Dave Homstad’s philosophy of not hitting during practice, the 6-foot-4, 245-pound offensive and defensive lineman wanted to know if the next coach had a different mind-set.
When Serre asked Jim Hogan if he planned to hit and tackle during practice, the answer was a definitive yes.
The Hilltoppers not only beat up on each other during practice this season, but took out their pent-up aggression on opponents as well. Marshall (5-3) takes a No. 2 seed into a Section 7AA quarterfinal home playoff game against Deer River at 3:30 p.m. today.
“It’s a great change, that’s what the game is all about,” Serre said. “We have to be prepared each and every week, so if we’re not hitting during practice then we’re not ready to take those blows. If we’re not physical during practice, we’re not going to be ready for a team that wants to hit.
“Everybody jumped on that bandwagon, and we enjoy practice a lot more now.”
Senior running back-linebacker Caden Flaherty agrees.
“Not hitting in football is questionable; you have to learn how to hit,” the team’s leading rusher said. “This year we were really excited from the first day when coach said we were going to hit a lot. It was a nice change.”
Hogan doesn’t say much about the change in philosophies, preferring to focus on the present rather than what the team did in the past. But he does believe in a hard-hitting approach.
“I think it’s important to be physical because it’s a physical game,” he said.
Hogan took over a team on a 17-game losing streak that hadn’t won a playoff game since 2004 nor posted a winning record since 2003. The first of those skeins went by the wayside in the season opener, a 14-13 win over Eveleth-Gilbert.
The Hilltoppers committed eight turnovers in that game, but, Hogan says, developed a positive attitude.
“That had a big impact on their mind-set the rest of the year — they started to believe they could win,” he said. “That set the course for the season.”
Marshall followed with a 32-14 loss to second-ranked Moose Lake-Willow River, a game which in past years routinely went into running time by the fourth quarter. This time, the Hilltoppers put up a fight that resonated with Rebels coach Dave Louzek.
“I’m very impressed with what Marshall has done this year,” Louzek said. “Coach Hogan is disciplined and took baby steps with that team, making sure they were good at something before he added another aspect to their offense. The kids are very aggressive and there’s no quit in them. We opened that game with a kick return for a touchdown, and they didn’t slump their shoulders at all or quit at all. They made us play a four-quarter football game.”
That perseverance ties in with the team’s motto of “unshaken.”
“Whatever comes our way, good or bad, we’re going to remain unshaken and stay on an even keel,” Hogan said. “If we get down, we’re not going to fold the tent. I’ve used that expression a lot this year and they have bought into the theme. It’s proven itself on the field.”
Though the Hilltoppers suffered a one-point overtime loss to Rush City, they rebounded with an eight-point win over Pine City, a one-point overtime win over Aitkin and a 14-7 win last week over once-beaten Hinckley-Finlayson to secure their first winning season in nine years. Now the team goes after its last remaining hurdle: a postseason victory.
“We knew we could win, we just had to find it within ourselves,” Flaherty said. “The coaches can only coach us up so much, it’s up to the players to go out and play.”
Six-time defending section champion MLWR (8-0) will be hard to unseat, however. The Rebels have the experience, depth, strength along the offensive and defensive lines and 2011 All-Area Player of the Year Jake Disterhaupt at running back, giving them a distinct advantage over any other team in the section.
Coaching change doesn’t affect Barnum
Brian Robertson stepped into what could have been an awkward situation earlier this year when former coach Kevin Haley stepped down after a school investigation into alleged improprieties. But the five-year assistant-turned-head coach has guided the Bombers into position for another state tournament appearance.
Barnum (6-2), riding a six-game winning streak, received the No. 1 seed for the Section 7A playoffs and hosts winless Ogilvie in tonight’s quarterfinals.
“It wasn’t much of a transition,” Robertson said of the coaching change. “We stuck with what worked in the past. We try to keep things simple and stick to the basics.”
That means running the ball a lot with a three-pronged attack of Daniel Warpula (86 carries, 755 yards, 14 touchdowns), Colton Selix (75-643, 10 TDs) and Zach Peterson (64-552).
“The line is the strength of our team; they really open up some big holes,” Robertson said.
The Bombers’ main challenge in joining the 2006 and 2010 state-qualifying teams is No. 2 seed Cook County (6-1), whose only loss was 30-7 to Barnum in a game that Robertson says was closer than the score indicates.
South Ridge enters playoffs on a roll
Tony Deleon began his South Ridge coaching career in much the same manner that the 2011 team’s season went: with a loss.
But after that 8-6 defeat to Bigfork, Deleon’s Panthers haven’t been beaten since.
South Ridge (7-1), which was 1-8 a year ago, earned the top seed in Section 5 and enters the playoffs on a seven-game winning streak. But the Big North Conference champion — most Big North teams are in Section 7 — will have to beat teams it’s unfamiliar with in order to advance to the state tournament for the first time since 2004, when the school was known as the AlBrook Falcons.
Opponents could include 2007 section champion McGregor and 2010 state champion Cromwell. No. 2 seed Floodwood, which is seeking its first state berth, also could stand in the way. Defending champion Silver Bay is a No. 6 seed.
Defending champion Bigfork, Ely and Kelliher-Northome, the top three seeds, posted 6-2 records in the regular season, while Mountain Iron-Buhl, Chisholm and North Woods all enter the playoffs at 5-3. The topsy-turvy season included Chisholm beating higher-seeded Bigfork and MIB while losing to lower-seeded North Woods; Ely beating top-seeded Bigfork and losing to No. 4 MIB; and MIB and North Woods each enduring three-game losing streaks after starting the season ranked and undefeated.