DAWSON - The years of heartache fed the fire for the Dawson-Boyd football team, and the Blackjacks were burning hot last year as they ran rampant through Class A on their way to the program's first state title in its first-ever trip to the state tournament.
A 15-point win over Mahnomen in the Class A championship game was the closest the Blackjacks let anyone get during a season in which they averaged 47.5 points per game - a touchdown and extra point more than the next-highest scoring team in the class.
For the players and coaches who had been part of Dawson-Boyd teams that had lost in the Section 5A finals three times in the previous four years, finally breaking through in such emphatic fashion required some time to process what had happened.
Photo by Matt Dahlseid
Dawson-Boyd junior quarterback Joey Lee, center, reaches back to throw a pass during a drill during team practice Thursday in Dawson. Lee passed for 1,495 yards and 25 touchdowns while helping the Blackjacks roll to a perfect 14-0 record in 2011. He had a total of seven touchdowns (four passing, three rushing)?in the state semifinals against Blooming Prairie.
"It took a while to sink in," said senior running back Justin Lee, who rushed for 1,621 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. "It's still a big thing for our town and they always remind us of how big of a deal it is. It's awesome."
The Blackjacks got their fill of celebrations in the Metrodome and back home in Dawson. Now they're ready to get back to work. Actually, they've been back to work for quite some time already. Many of the players started ramping up their lifting last spring and kept grinding through the summer months.
Dawson-Boyd made winning look easy last year, and the Blackjacks feel that was in large part due to what went on behind the scenes.
"The offseason is when you have to work to achieve your goals in the season," said Dawson-Boyd lineman Brandon Schmitt, who recorded nine sacks last season. "All summer we've been in the weight room and have tried to instill in the guys that you have to work hard to achieve what you want to get throughout the year.
"Some guys who have to step up on the line this year who haven't really spent a lot of time in the weight room, they've really impressed me by showing up in the weight room a lot."
The Blackjacks are looking to become the first Class A team to repeat as state champions since Cook County, Grand Marais won back-to-back-to-back titles from 1997-99. This time, they won't have a loss from the previous season to use as motivation. They'll have to look elsewhere.
"It's a different type of challenge for us as a coaching staff and for the players because most of the time, pretty much all of the time, you come into a season and you're motivated by that last loss," Dawson-Boyd head coach Cory Larson said. "Maybe you were close to getting into a section championship game or close to getting into the state championship and fell a little short.
"Now you look back and you kind of have to use the best motivator, and that's pride. You want to get back and have that same feeling you had last year."
Dawson-Boyd will try to have that same feeling with a different team. The Blackjacks lost nine seniors to graduation, including four who started on both sides of the ball. In that group were two of the team's top playmakers in running back Esten Weber and receiver Zach Stelter. Both Weber and Stelter will be playing collegiately this fall, Weber at St. Thomas and Stelter at St. Olaf.
Last year, the Blackjacks overwhelmed opponents with their overall team speed and athleticism. Losing players like Weber, Stelter and Evan Robertson (who led the Marshall area in 2011 with 12 interceptions) will mean Dawson-Boyd will take a bit of a hit in those area's, but that's something Larson feels the team can overcome.
"At least early on in the season, we might not have the versatility we did defensively last year. That'd be the biggest change," Larson said. "And you can't expect that out of a small, 1A school. It's pretty unique to have that many kids you can move around and play at not just one or two, but three or four positions. When you're going against teams, especially late in the section and state tournaments, those teams have many weapons that they can put on the field and it's nice to be able to match up with what they have by moving guys around defensively.
"We have some younger guys who have some growing to do defensively and hopefully they'll get there by the end of the season."
The team still has plenty of dangerous playmakers, including Justin Lee, receiver Nathaniel Huot and quarterback Joey Lee. Joey Lee had a breakout sophomore season in 2011, his first as a starting quarterback. He showed steady improvement throughout the season and had all of his skills on display in the state semifinal game against Blooming Prairie when he scored seven total touchdowns (four passing, three rushing).
It's hard to do better than seven touchdowns in one game, but Joey Lee said he still has plenty of room for improvement.
"Last year I was nervous about trying not to make mistakes and this year I think I can relax a bit more," he said. "This year we have a great running game again, which takes a lot of pressure off me, but I look to make a couple more plays and get called upon a little more often."
Joey Lee and his teammates will get to show how they've improved when they open the season Thursday, Aug. 30 at home against Lakeview. Key games this season include a Sept. 21 showdown at home against Minneota/Lincoln HI and two road games against state tournament teams from last year (at Adrian Sept. 28 and at Braham Oct. 5).
Right now, the Blackjacks are taking their title defense day by day, practice by practice. Through their first week of practices, they like what they've seen so far.
"We're looking pretty good," Justin Lee said. "Everyone's questioning our line, but we look like we've filled those holes pretty good and we should be solid up front. It should be a fun year with the way we're looking."