DAWSON - An All-State honorable mention receiver, one of the best running backs in school history and the entire offensive line that helped block for that back in 2012 - they're all gone from the Dawson-Boyd football program.
The majority of the core group of players that had a hand in taking the Blackjacks to two straight trips to the Class A state tournament, including the school's first-ever state championship, has departed, but the returning players and coaches don't see the missing pieces as a reason to adjust their lofty goals.
"The expectations never change," Dawson-Boyd quarterback Joey Lee said. "Our goal is to always win that section championship. I think we have another great shot to do it this year."
Photo by Matt Dahlseid
Dawson-Boyd senior Michael Anyasike takes a handoff during a drill for running backs Tuesday at the Blackjacks’ practice field in Dawson. Anyasike is the team’s top returning rusher. In 2012 he rushed for 720 yards — 420 of which were in the postseason — on 111 carries for an average of 6.5 yards per carry. He also scored five touchdowns.
Few programs can lose so much and still remain a favorite to get to state. The 2012 Dawson-Boyd team had three of its players sign on to play at Southwest Minnesota State, including receiver Nathaniel Huot, linebacker Justin Lee and defensive lineman Brandon Schmitt, and yet the Blackjacks still have a number of proven weapons returning for the upcoming season.
Joey Lee was a sophomore when he helped the Blackjacks to a state title in 2011. In 2012, the All-Little Sioux Conference performer completed 68 percent of his passes for 1,893 yards and 21 touchdowns. Now a senior, Lee's poise and big-game experience will be relied upon while other players on offense adjust to assuming larger roles.
Michael Lee will also be there to help. The 6-foot-4 junior was somewhat overshadowed by Huot's staggering numbers last season (1,079 yards on 58 receptions), but his production was also impressive. Michael Lee finished second in the Marshall area in receiving with 40 receptions for 630 yards, and had a team-high 11 touchdowns.
While Joey Lee and Michael Lee remained healthy through last season, several key contributors went down with injuries late in the year, especially top playmakers in the backfield and at linebacker. That meant young players had no option other than to step in and step up to help their team in its quest to get back to state. That gives the current crew of Blackjacks confidence that what seem to be big holes can indeed be filled.
"With all the injuries we had last year, we had guys step up, so that kind of helped us out this year and we know we have some players who can fill in and do alright," Michael Lee said.
Michael Anyasike was one of those players who saw his role increase tremendously during some of the most vital games of the season. The speedy running back finished the regular season with 300 yards on 33 carries. Against Canby in the second round of the playoffs, he went from a third or fourth option out of the backfield to just about the only option because of injuries and proceeded to rush for 109 yards in a 23-7 victory. He finished with 420 yards in the postseason alone.
Knowing he'll have to sustain a heavier workload this season, Anyasike said he upped his weightlifting in the offseason and put in extra time working on ball security and route running to uphold the school's recent tradition of producing standout backs.
"I knew I had some big shoes to fill, so the offseason was pretty important to me because I didn't want to let anyone down," said Anyasike, who will share carries with junior Dalton Palmer.
Dawson-Boyd head coach Cory Larson has confidence that players like Anyasike and Palmer will be able to help deliver another strong season for the Blackjacks. Those names aren't associated with Dawson-Boyd football like the the names Justin Lee, Brandon Schmitt and Nathaniel Huot, but Larson is encouraging the current crop of players to make new names for themselves.
"The nice thing is there's not quite the same buzz that we've had the last couple of years, so maybe there's not that extra pressure," Larson said. "The challenge is different because now it's about, hey, let's try to build some excitement. The excitement isn't quite at the same level as it has been, so that's something we talked about (Monday) during and after practice with some of the kids."
There are still some questions marks for the Blackjacks, like who will fill out what will be an inexperienced offensive line, but if they do reach a goal of making the section finals, one thing is certain - they won't be playing the Minneota/Lincoln HI Vikings for a fifth straight year. The Vikings are moving up a class this season, which means Dawson-Boyd won't battle its biggest rival for a trip to state in 2013.
Even with having what has been a Class A powerhouse moved out of his team's way in Section 5A, Larson said his players know it still won't be easy to reach their goals.
"Whenever you get to a section championship, whoever you're playing, you better be ready," Larson said. "You can't rely on just getting up for the Minneota game. You get to that game and you better be ready to go, and certainly one of our goals is to get back to that game."