Verndale team looks lighter, quicker
With a team dominated by 14 seniors the future is now for Mike Mahlen's Verndale Pirates.
Minnesota's winningest high school coach has had the talent to reach the Class Nine-man state tournament the past two years in a row. They lost to eventual state champ Houston in 2008 and state runner-up Clinton-Graceville-Beardsley last November.
Now Mahlen is going after a fourth straight section crown with a team that is top-heavy with upperclassmen, but also a team that lacks last year's stable of returning starters.
The Pirates have five starters back on offense. Seniors Cody Yungbauer, Zach Meidinger, Matt Willis, Dan Kneisl and Kyle Booth will play fullback, halfback, tackle and tight end spots. Mahlen plays to go with an all-senior offensive starting unit.
Eight of Verndale's defensive starters will also be seniors. Booth is a good man at defensive end, Kneisl will play tackle, Yungbauer returns to play linebacker. Willis and Meidinger have starting experience in the secondary.
Dustin Motschenbacher will handle the kicking and the punting chores.
While Mahlen likes his senior-dominated roster he lacks some of the fine size he had last year on the line. Clay Cottrell and Jon Kohlhase are both graduated.
"We only have three kids on the whole team over 200 pounds," Mahlen said.
The Pirates will go with a five-man offensive line of seniors. Kyle Booth and Jerdan Steiner are slated for tight end duty. Kneisl and Tim Kern will play the tackle spots and Austin Hovius is set at center.
Mahlen expects to spread the running attack out this fall with Yungbauer and Meidinger being joined by Willis, senior Jacob Perius and junior Colton Moyer.
The lack of heft should be compensated for by some good team speed.
"I think our overall team speed will be good," Mahlen said.
One key spot that is in the hands of a new player is quarterback. Colby Schmidt was a great running threat last year. Verndale's new quarterback is Nate Bart, a good passer but not a gifted runner, Mahlen said.
The Pirates will also be without Amos Schmidt this year. Like Cottrell, the hard-running back and linebacker was both a Class Nine-man all-stater and academic all-stater. He was a scoring machine over Verndale's last six outings with 24 TDs.
The Pirates will have to come out of the starting gate playing good football if they hope to match last year's unbeaten regular season. They open on the road with Wheaton-Herman-Norcross, the Pheasant South's toughest team, on Sept. 3. After hosting Ashby Sept. 10, they tangle with the club that Mahlen rates as the Pheasant North favorite, Bertha-Hewitt, on the Bears' home field Sept. 17. The Bears gave the Pirates all they wanted in the Section 4 championship game last year before losing 26-24.
As the two-time defending section champs, Mahlen knows his team should be a strong contender for top honors.
"We should be able to compete for conference and section titles," Mahlen said.