DAWSON - When the 2013 high school football season began last August, Dawson-Boyd quarterback Joey Lee, The Marshall Independent's All-Area Football Player of the Year, had nervous excitement long before stepping onto the field.
"Coming into this season, expectations were high for us again, even though we had lost all five linemen and our top two playmakers on offense," Lee said. "We had some people that we needed to replace and there were question marks that we needed to answer."
In 2012, seniors Austin Mork, Jordan Staab and Matt Stratmoen had been first-year starters on Dawson-Boyd's offensive line. Seniors Brandon Schmitt, a two-year-starter, and Aaron Tufto, a three-year starter, guided the Blackjacks' front five with a tremendous amount of combined experience.
Dawson-Boyd quarterback Joey Lee attempts to pass against Mahnomen during the Prep Bowl on Nov. 29, 2013, at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
With Justin Lee, a 1,239-yard rusher, and Nathaniel Huot, a 1,079-yard receiver as Joey Lee's weapons of gridiron destruction, the result was an 11-2 Dawson-Boyd campaign that reached the MSHSL Class A State Tournament semifinals in 2012.
But Justin Lee and Huot both were seniors who graduated in spring 2013.
After training camp ended last August, Joey Lee remained as the Blackjacks' most experienced offensive threat.
"When you have to replace any starter at a position, it's always tough," Joey Lee said. "But when you have to replace all five of your offensive linemen and your two best playmakers, I was really nervous to see what would happen."
As new players blossomed into starting roles around him in 2013, Joey Lee increased his production at quarterback during a 12-2 season that finished with a berth in the MSHSL Class A Prep Bowl at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
This season, he completed 132 of 232 passes for 2,243 yards with 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions and ran 39 times for 168 yards and seven touchdowns.
Even more important, according to Dawson-Boyd head coach Cory Larson, Joey Lee became the uniting factor that held the Blackjacks together.
"Joey Lee is an outstanding leader who does not put himself ahead of his team," Larson said. "He is one of those kids who has gained a lot of respect from his teammates, coaches and even opponents. I think he leads by example and with his voice. Joey prides himself on not being outworked by anybody, which helped to push his teammates to become better from that example. At the same time, he was our voice and, at quarterback, a player needs to be like that."
Larson said Joey Lee helped the Blackjacks by studying the playbook to understand his role and learn the roles of his teammates.
Joey Lee humbly accepted The Marshall Independent's player of the year award, but repeatedly said the contributions of his teammates were just as important to Dawson-Boyd's success.
"He is a gifted athlete, but that's not all that makes Joey Lee a special person," Larson said. "After all of the success he has had as an athlete and after all of the success his teams have experienced, he has kept a level head."
Mahnomen won the Class A state title with a 46-13 Prep Bowl victory against DB on Nov. 29, 2013.
While trying to win a second state football title in three years, Joey Lee said, "It just wasn't meant to be."
Seniors Keith Abraham, Cody Aafedt, Mark Thompson, Jake Lehmann, Jamie Arvold and junior Zach Stratmoen became the offensive linemen who protected Joey Lee in 2013. Although they had received playing time in the past, none of them were considered to be starters until this year.
To illustrate the importance of solid offensive line play, Joey Lee was sacked three times on 131 plays while attempting to pass or run in 2012. A year later, Abraham, Aafedt, Thompson, Lehmann, Arvold and Stratmoen combined to allow one sack on 271 plays involving the Blackjacks' quarterback.
"The offensive linemen made our whole offense go," Joey Lee said. "They might not get their names in the paper that often or win all of the awards they deserve, but they made our offense run smoothly. Before our first game (at Russell-Tyler-Ruthton on Aug. 29, 2013), they had some bumps and bruises while getting their communication down, but they gave us great senior leadership the entire season."
With Justin Lee gone from the Dawson-Boyd backfield, running backs Michael Anyasike and Dalton Palmer emerged to take a ton of pressure off the Blackjacks' signal-caller.
Anyasike was the first area rusher to compile 1,000 yards in 2013, before a hamstring injury limited his ability during the postseason. He ended up third among area rushers with 1,269 yards and 14 touchdowns on 153 carries.
With Anyasike playing mostly at linebacker on a banged up hamstring, Palmer became the featured running back in the Dawson-Boyd offense until an ankle injury in the Class A state semifinals limited his effectiveness for the Prep Bowl. Palmer still ran for enough yards (1,558) and touchdowns (19) to lead all area running backs.
Minus Huot, Joey Lee looked to cousin Michael Lee as his primary receiving target. With an unbreakable family bond between them, Michael Lee hauled in area-bests in receptions (57) and receiving yards (956) while catching 13 touchdown passes.
"Even though Michael is my cousin, he feels like a brother to me," Joey Lee said. "He has grown up next door to me our entire lives. There have been countless times when we have thrown the football around in the back yard. Many times on the field, we both knew what each other was thinking. All I had to do was throw the ball up there for him and he was right there to catch it."
On defense, Joey Lee, who held down a spot as a defensive back, said Dawson-Boyd relied upon its team speed to reach the ball. With Anyasike and Palmer as linebackers and Michael Lee as a corner back, several Blackjacks flew to the ball, slowed their opponent's forward progress until more teammates could arrive.
On special teams, Joey Lee punted 24 times for 763 yards, which averages 31.8 yards per attempt. He finished sixth in the area among punters.
Joey Lee said the Blackjacks' season could have had a disastrous ending.
"We trailed 20-7 in the first half of our section semifinal game against Canby. I don't know what happened to us, but we snuck by in a couple of games at the end of the regular season and the first half of that game," Joey Lee said. "It felt like we were playing not to lose, but that wasn't what we wanted to do. We wanted to play to win and leave it all on the field. At halftime, we decided to leave it all on the field. I'm glad that we did because that win was the turning point to our season."
The Blackjacks shut out the Lancers 18-0 in the second half to post a 25-20 victory before earning a state tournament berth after blanking Wabasso 28-0 in a section title game.