FIELD TWP—It’s a brand-new ballgame for the North Woods Grizzlies as they prepare for the start of the Section 7A football season next Thursday. The team, which has competed since its inception …
FIELD TWP—It’s a brand-new ballgame for the North Woods Grizzlies as they prepare for the start of the Section 7A football season next Thursday. The team, which has competed since its inception at the nineman level, will be playing 11-man ball this year— and that means they’ll be facing a new cast of teams, players, and looks, both on offense and defense. It also means they’ll be spending more time on the bus as they travel a wider circuit across northern and east-central Minnesota.
The move to 11-man is based on the school’s enrollment in grades 9-12, and is determined by the rules laid down by the Minnesota High School League. Schools with a high school enrollment of 150 or fewer can compete at the nineman level. North Woods is closer to 180 in the high school this year, according to Head Coach and North Woods Athletic Director John Jirik.
The impact of the switch to 11-man is largely unknown at this point, although Jirik acknowledges that they’ll be playing teams this year they have never faced before. While they’ll have access to game videos, Jirik said those can’t replace real experience with an opposing team. On the other hand, North Woods will be a largely unknown quantity to the teams they’ll face this year as well. “You never know, we might even surprise some people,” he said.
The team will have two extra players in the lineup, and a wider field, which will mean some different sets on both sides of the ball. On offense, they’ll be adding two down linemen and the additional players will mostly work the backfield on defense. Jirik doesn’t expect any major changes to the team’s play selection. “We’re trying to stick with what’s familiar,” he said. “We want them to be comfortable going into it.”
They’ll host International Falls in their season opener here on Thursday, and that’s a team that they actually did face in an 11-man preview game last season. It wasn’t a good test for either team, however, since wet weather quickly turned the game into what Jirik described as a “mud bowl.”
The season will no doubt pose a challenge for a squad that has been a dominant force in the Section 7 Nineman division in recent years. The team won the section title in 2017 after losing to Ely in the section championship the year before. Last year, the team bowed out in the semi-finals to Cook County, who went on to win the section crown.
Jirik said the team hasn’t focused much on the challenges they face heading into the new division. “Our kids just want to play ball,” said Jirik. “Whether we’re in nine or 11-man, the challenge is always getting the kids ready to play. And it’s a good challenge, because I know I have 18-20 kids who have played at the varsity level before.”
Kickoff next Thursday is set for 7 p.m.