DEER RIVER — It was a tremendous 2018 season for the Deer River High School football team as it won the Section 7A championship and played in its first state tournament in 19 years.
Although many of the players on that state-tournament team have graduated, the Warriors – who finished with a 9-2 record last season – still bring back a number of players who should be able to lead Deer River to another successful season.
Deer River head coach Brent Schimek – who is entering his ninth year in the position – said it was good to get the Warriors back to the state tournament, crediting the youth football program and a good group of athletes for the state berth. He said the tradition of excellence in the Deer River football program remains strong.
“I now coach the sons and nephews of kids that coach (Steve) Ottmhad and now that is getting perpetuated in and carried on,” said Schimek. “Last year’s state tournament team had a lot of kids that had parents who were on previous state tournament teams. It’s good to see their kids being able to have that experience.”
The Warriors came out of a tough Section 7A as champs and were forced to face Mahnomen – a perennial state power – in the first round. Deer River lost as Mahnomen went on to capture the state Class A championship.
“Our Pony League youth program for fourth through sixth graders is strong and it has always been pretty strong numbers-wise,” said Schimek. “Our numbers are pretty consistent year-to-year as far as seventh through 12 and that helps to keep that number consistent. The youth organization is what really feeds it.
“It’s not just about winning and losing, it’s about teaching them skills. That’s the important part.”
Deer River lost many of last year’s starting linemen and that will be an area the Warriors will need to shore up. The Warriors also lost a couple of receivers who need to be replaced.
“We lose our 10 to 12 seniors every year so that is 25 percent of your team,” Schimek explained. “You lose quite a bit every year at a Class A school.”
One huge strength for Deer River is the return of junior Austin Rasley and senior Trevor Michienzi as the starting running backs. They formed a formidable duo last season for opponents to defend and it promises to be the same again this year.
Seniors Thor Kongsjord and Quinton White return as starters on the offensive line to provide experience. Junior quarterback Blake Fox played in five games and won them all last year after injury struck Noah Williams so he has some experience entering the season.
On defense, seniors Trey Fairbanks and Marshall Michienzi are back at linebacker and senior Logan David is back at defensive end and tight end.
“We are OK and we just have to plug in the pieces around them,” said Schimek.
When asked what he feels to be keys to a successful season for Deer River, Schimek said, “It takes a lot of luck and a lot of work to get to win a section championship. In Class A you have to have the ball bounce your way a few times and like every team does you have to stay away from injury in key spots and win some big games.
“Our section is pretty balanced and pretty loaded every week. We start off right away with Barnum and we have Braham in there who is a perennial state tournament team, along with Rush City and Hinckley.
“Everybody that we play other than International Falls is in our section and this year we are adding North Woods to our section and that is another athletic team getting thrown in there that we haven’t played before. So, it is going to be week-to-week because it is going to be a tough one every week.”
Assisting Schimek in the coaching department are Mike Fairbanks, Bill Mundt and Aaron Drotts.
“You hope your team takes on what the attitude that your seniors have, and these are a hard-working bunch of kids,” the coach said. “They got that taste of that state tournament and they want to get back there. Of course, it’s harder to get back there than it is to get there and it is harder to stay there and I think they realize that.
“They are just a bunch of grinders that come out and they do what they need to do.”
Schimek said the idea is for the Warriors to get the best QRF rating they can for a high seed in the section tournament.
“The seeding is done by QRF formula and they don’t put a lot of points in the size of the school,” said Schimek, who added that the Warriors will play International Falls, a Class AAA school, in its second game. “There are more points in that formula for strength of program.
“In other words, if you beat teams that are winning then your points are going to be a lot higher. If you beat someone 0-8, a lot of times you go backwards. So strength of schedule is huge.”
Deer River will get thrown into the fire immediately as it plays host to Barnum on Friday, Aug. 30, at 7 p.m. at Davidson Field in Deer River. Barnum drops down to Class A this year after previously playing in Section 7AA.
Schimek said Barnum lost its entire backfield from last year’s team, but he said he really doesn’t know much more about the Bombers.
“Last year it was an 8-0 game where we won on a punt return in the fourth quarter,” Schimek said. “That’s what I expect again. They usually are a double tight team, a ground-and-pound team and we are going to be a lot of that this year too. I expect a low-scoring defensive game.”