By Cassie Kickert
Here’s a prediction: 2014 is sure to be a special season.
How special? St. Paul Pioneers’ coaches, players and staff already are having flashbacks to 2012. The Pioneers’ dominant performance and undefeated record that year did not happen by accident. Success came due to hard work, determination and trust in each other.
Hard work might have the same effect this season. Still, there are no guarantees.
Said Head Coach Mark Heiser: “I see a lot of similarities between this team and the 2012 team. This team might be even more talented overall than our team in 2012. On paper we look very strong. We can't take that for granted though. We need to start fast and win a lot of football games to prove that we have what it takes to match the 2012 National Championship team.”
After all, the Pioneers had high hopes for 2013 too, after winning the USA Bowl National Championship in Daytona Beach, Fla., in January 2013 against the North Texas Longhorns. However, injuries, a late winter and limited practices helped the Pioneers get off to a shaky start, losing the first three games.
Said Heiser: “All it takes is a few injuries and it can have a huge effect on your season. If we stay healthy all season we should have a very good year.”
Injuries, including to former quarterback Michael Spriggs, led to a big change of offense. On May 18, against the Eau Claire Crush, Cleveland McCoy started his first game. McCoy’s opening act was a success; the game was a blowout, the Pioneers winning 47-8.
How did McCoy step so seamlessly into the lineup? How did he bring the team back together and start playing Pioneers football again?
After all, by the time the Pioneers took the field that Saturday, the team had already lost two of its top defensive lineman, Garrett Johnson and Cliff Gordy. They would later lose Spriggs, who helped lead them to that National Championship.
“I came in not trying to be the leader that talks but shows production on the field...the guys saw that I wasn't about negativity or about myself [and] that I cared for them as players,” said McCoy, a former South Carolina State quarterback. “We all lead in different ways. I lead by showing what I can do on the field, and off the field.”
Indeed, he showed everyone what he’s capable of last season. The Pioneers lost just once after he became the starter – to the rival Chippewa Valley Predators in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, on June 8, 14-6. The team turned what could have been a disappointing season into victory, peaking at the right time and sweeping through the playoffs. The Pioneers won fourth consecutive NEFL title in St. Paul against the Lake Superior Rage.
Anyone watching in 2014 can see that the energy, passion and excitement from 2012 are back. The team’s recent minicamp could best be described as a spirited, physical practice.
Still, nobody’s giving anybody anything, according to corner Bobby Wright.
Wright, who moved to defense from offense at the end of last season, said the transition to the defensive side of the ball has been a breeze. After all, he grabbed two interceptions in the Championship game. “[I’m] going from receiver and running around to following people around.”
While Wright also said he has the same feeling he had in 2012, it will take hard work to repeat that feat. So far, so good, he said. Guys have been working out together for months to get ready. A huge test awaits, against the Des Moines Blaze on May 3. The Pioneers lost to Des Moines by four points last year.
Wright said a victory against the Blaze would put the Pioneers back on the National map. With hard work and lots of practice, the Pioneers can definitely make Nationals, he said.
According to defensive coordinator Kahn Powell, the Pioneers’ talent is as good as it has ever been defensively. Ultimately, unity is the key, according to Powell.
“It’s going to take unity to have the kind of team we had in 2012. That was a unified team. It’s going to [take] a lot of hard work to get back to that point,” he said.
Powell thinks the defensive line is the Pioneers’ strongest position on defense. Johnson and Gordy return from injury, joining perennial all-star Jeff McGaster and 2013 sack master Ed Smith. Brandon Murdock and
Jake Muellner return to harass opposing quarterbacks. They are joined by impressive newcomers Devin Waters, Kirk Eggleston and Weston Gadient.
Powell also says the linebackers are stepping up their game as well. John Robinson is back after sustaining a shoulder injury late in the season against the Wauwatosa Spartans in Milwaukee. Billy Quistorff and Phil Breidall are returning for the Pioneers as well. Veterans Corey Brenner and Tierre Thompson have had huge games in the past. Powell said he also likes newcomer Shaye Thomas from Southwest Minnesota State.
Defensive back has always been one of the Pioneers’ strengths. This season should be no different. Lionel Lamarre, Jake Lindsay, Brock Keaton, Nate Beulah and Terry Jones all return for the Pioneers. So does Wright. Newcomers Cam Smith and Reggie Woods from St. Olaf are in the mix for significant roles
Not to be overshadowed, the offense will have a lot to say about whether the team can match 2012.
The offense has a new coordinator, but he is no stranger to Pioneers football. Anthony Minus won a National Championship as a player with the Pioneers in 2009. The former high school head coach and college assistant will be aided by another former Pioneer, Bryan Wrich, who has won Championships with the Minnesota Sting the past two seasons.
Anyone looking in on the Pioneers offense would expect the team to once again run the ball well. Running back Riza Mahmoud, last year’s NEFL Offensive Player of the Year, returns. So, too, does Isaac Odim, who was league MVP in 2012 before taking a year off to attend graduate school. Vernon Johnson, Jamal
Those backs are hoping to pass through holes made by a strong offensive line. C.J. Sanderson, Zac Thompson, Thomas Broussard, David Camacho and Cory Huggar return to the line in 2014, joined by newcomers Scott Schmidt, Chris McGregor and Alex Christen have made a good impression in pre-season practices. Team stalwart Jacob Husnik begins the season on injured reserve.
McCoy will have plenty of chances to showcase his arm strength as the Pioneers boast a deep receiving corps starting with returning speedster Delane Woods and dependable Justin Miles. Damien Lolar has also come to the Pioneers from the Minnesota Sting and Donte Pettis, who did just about everything for the Predators last year, rejoins the Pioneers as well. Pettis was also on the 2009 National Championship team.
McCoy had a great deal of good things to say about all of his receivers. He said once Lolar grasps the Pioneers’ offense, he’ll be great. He also likes Pettis’ big play ability.
“I like Donte. Donte’s a vet. He’s a go-getter…In games when you need a big playmaker, I know I can count on Donte.”
Everyone knows the connection McCoy and Woods have. McCoy says once they learn the new offense and play a few games, they’ll be great.
Come join the excitement this season as the Pioneers make another run at a National Championship! The Pioneers’ first game is April 26 at SeaFoam Stadium against the Granite City Renegades. Hope to see you there!