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Amateur football: Huskerz in home game stance

Zach Hacker

WORTHINGTON — The idea of winning a national championship as an expansion team in any sport at any level sounds lofty to say the least, but Southwest Huskerz head coach Ken McCuen said his team expects nothing less.

“We’ve set our goals high,” McCuen said. “We want to be national champions in 2014. We’re going to bring a lot of excitement to the area and I think that’s already started. Amateur football is back in Worthington.”

The Huskerz, a newly-formed amateur football team that will play its home games at Trojan Field in Worthington, are already off to a good start in reaching that goal. In a preseason game against the Albert Lea Grizzlies — who finished second in the Southern Plains Football League last season — on Saturday, April 12, Southwest came away with a convincing 40-2 victory. Saturday, it opened its regular season against the Tri-State Buffalos in Hills and again ran away with it, finishing with a 28-0 win.

This Saturday, the Huskerz will bring what has been quite the show thus far to Worthington for their first home game of the season. The game against The Panic, a team based out of Nicollet, is scheduled for a 4 p.m. kickoff from Trojan Field.

What has been the secret to the early-season success? According to McCuen, who came to the Huskerz after coaching the Sioux Falls Stallions, a semi-professional team, along with the Tri-State Buffalos last season, it’s a matter of putting together a great organization from top to bottom.

Team owner/president Todd Schroeder started the team with the idea that McCuen would be his head coach and defensive coordinator. Since then, McCuen has been able to bring in some top-notch assistants to help him get the team prepared each week. Assistant head coach/offensive coordinator Brad Holinka and special teams coordinator ‘Mac’ McNamara came with McCuen from the Stallions. Later, Ben DeVries came on as co-offensive coordinator after winning a pair of national championships with the South Central Hawgs while Tyler Larson will help out with the defense.

Bringing on a great coaching staff, however, was just one piece of the puzzle.

“We have tremendous football players,” McCuen said. “My belief has always been that, as a coaching staff, we’re only as good as our players.”

Some of those players followed McCuen from his time in Sioux Falls and with Tri-State while others made the, currently, 33-man roster at one of two tryouts held in Worthington last year. Their level of experience varies, with some spending time at major NCAA Division I programs such as the University of Minnesota while others played at Minnesota West or were high school standouts.

No matter their background, they all have a couple things in common; a love for the game and the fact they aren’t ready to hang up the pads just yet.

One of those players is Mark Riley, a native of Round Lake who played two years at Minnesota West. Now a police officer in Worthington, Riley is currently training in St. Paul to be the new K-9 officer with the WPD. In the season-opener Saturday, the outside linebacker recorded eight solo tackles, six sacks and a fumble recovery.

“I still remember my last game at Minnesota West,” Riley said. “I thought that would be the last time I ever put on pads. I knew I was going into law enforcement and that the schedule would be too demanding to play for a team where I had to drive at least 45 minutes just for home games. To have a team right in Worthington makes it possible.”

Riley has been one of the anchors on a stifling defense that is yet to allow a point this season — the two points given up against Albert Lea came after a botched snap on a punt attempt. Counting the preseason game, Southwest has given up only 46 yards of total offense and gotten into the backfield for 34 sacks. Tri-State managed just 12 yards.

The captain of that defense and the man who calls all the plays is one of the players who came with McCuen from the Stallions. Middle linebacker Demetrius Washington, a native of Detroit, Mich., played one season at Wayne State in Detroit before coming to Worthington to play for Minnesota West. After earning First-Team All-American honors with the Bluejays, he finished his college playing career with Division II University of Sioux Falls.

Washington attributes McCuen and his staff for getting the right players with enough versatility to work in the system. So far, he said the success has come from the players keeping an open mind and buying into what they’re trying to do. For fans, it should be an exciting unit to watch.

“I believe in blitzing,” said Washington, who McCuen likened to former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis. “I want to blitz all day, every day. When you can get that pressure up the middle; that throws everything off in their offense.”

As good as the defense has been, McCuen said there is still plenty of room for improvement.

“I can’t say enough about our defense,” he said. “They’ve taken the system and run it to perfection. But, there are still places where we can get better. I’ve always said, in order for us to be great defensively, we have to create turnovers and score off of them. We’ve been doing that but we need to get better.”

The defense might be putting up some impressive stats, but the Huskerz certainly haven’t lacked anything on the opposite side of the football. On Saturday, they racked up 332 yards on the ground despite being rendered one-dimension because of the windy weather conditions.

Darieon Smith, who played for the University of Minnesota and was in camp with the Canadian Football League’s British Columbia Lions, carried the ball 17 times for 133 yards and a touchdown in the opener. He is just part of the two-headed monster in the backfield, however. Khalid Waters, a native of La Mesa, Calif., who played his college ball at Midland College in Fremont, Neb., also gained 109 yards and scored twice on just six totes.

Waters said the offense — which has racked up 56 points in its two games — is only getting better as it continues to grow as a unit. Part of what has made it so strong in the early-going is the group it goes against in practice.

“Our defense is very good,” Waters said. “They’re such a mentally sound group. For us to go against them in practice just makes us that much better. If we can block them, we can block against anybody.”

All three of the players along with Coach McCuen said they are excited for the opportunity to play on their home turf. McCuen said the community of Worthington has been very supportive so far as the team has already generated more than 20 sponsors and was able to work with the public school district to get the opportunity to play on Trojan Field

As the team grows, McCuen said it will give back to the community in more ways than providing an exciting squad to watch. He also plans to hold youth camps and other community events put on by the team.

“We want to help the community because they’re helping us,” he said. “We want to do everything possible to make it a fan-friendly, exciting experience for people who come watch our games.”

The first opportunity will be Saturday against what McCuen said will be a very strong Panic team. Washington said those who come watch will be in for a treat.

“I believe we’ll put on a good show for Worthington,” the middle linebacker said. “Get your popcorn ready.”