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Optimism high for Minnesota West football

Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Minnesota West football players run through plays during practice Wednesday afternoon.1 / 2
Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Returning sophomore players for the Minnesota West Bluejays are (front, from left) Neil Ross, Zach Norman, Steven Koneczny, Cha'Ron Thompson, Rueben Linton II, Tyler Smith and (back) Zelius Morrow, Dylan Hart, Matt Shively, Tawan Downs, Mychal Sheridan, Greg Gainey, Logan Massop and Mike Cooper.2 / 2

WORTHINGTON -- At the beginning of a football season, it's good to have optimism. For players, it's something to wave around like a flag. For coaches, it's something to be contained, like an opposing offense.

At Minnesota West, there is genuine optimism about the season ahead. But as the Bluejays prepare to host their season opener Saturday at 5 p.m. against the Vermillion Ironmen, it is obvious "optimism" is a word as potentially stocked with danger as with promise.

Logan Massop, the Bluejays' All-Division honorable mention quarterback in his second year of leading the Jays' offense, is waving the flag of what might be.

"I think we have a championship mentality that we haven't had in a few years," said the 6-1, 200-pound sophomore from St. Paul this week. "I think we have a strong core group of players back. We have a direction, we know what we want to do, and we can implement the new guys we've got coming in."

Minnesota West, which posted a 6-3 record in 2012, does indeed possess a solid nucleus of leaders in 2013, led by Massop on the offensive side and three dedicated linebackers on the defensive side.

"It's the same formula," Massop continued. "We got the gritty wins, the come-from-behind wins (last year). This year we kind of know how to win, as compared to last year we were just trying to figure things out."

Massop says this fall's Jays want to start faster, get leads earlier in games, and with better overall size and at least 20 more players on the roster, the team has the capacity to do just that.

Which all sounds fine to veteran head coach Jeff Linder. But when Linder talks about the future, he seems just a little more guarded -- like a coach would be.

"You always set your bar high. But the biggest thing is to concentrate on the team that's right in front of you," he said.

What Linder sees is a Bluejays outfit where players need to take care of their own assignments and refrain from trying to do too much by themselves.


"To get your long-term goal, you've got to set short-term goals. So to set the goal high is always a good thing so long as you don't lose sight of what it takes to get to that long-term goal."

That said, Linder is sure he has the right man for the job of leading the offense. Massop, who threw for 676 yards and five touchdowns last year, is not just a talented signal-caller but a natural leader as well.

"He knows the system almost as good as we (coaches) do," said Linder.

The Jays also have three fine receivers: 5-11, 180-pound wide receiver Neil Ross of West Palm Beach, Fla.; 6-3, 205-pound tight end Zelius Morrow of Monroe, Mich.; and 6-2, 202-pound wide receiver Lucas Johnson of Helena, Mont. Morrow, athletic, with good hands -- and an oustanding blocker -- was second-team All-Division last season.

Leadership is strongly in evidence on defense with 6-1, 210-pound middle linebacker Matt Shively of Oakdale, Minn. (first team All-Division); 6-1, 225-pound middle linebacker Dylan Hart of Mitchell, S.D. (second team All-Division); and 6-1, 210-pound outside linebacker Cha'Ron Thompson of Omaha, Neb. (All-Division honorable mention).

"They've been in the trenches. They know what it takes to be successful," said Linder, who describes all three as "hard-working" players possessing "relentless effort."

Though Linder says he is legitimately excited about the upcoming season, he also knows that the team, as a whole, is "very young." If the Bluejays are to reach their goals in 2013, coaching will be at a premium.

Minnesota West is coming off a good year defensively, having given up just 1,001 yards rushing and 983 passing yards altogether. A great deal of that defensive strength is due to defensive coordinator Scott Barber, who has been with Linder for all of the head coach's 19 years as the Bluejays' boss. Lais says Barber's reputation among rivals is as firm as it is within the organization. Barber is excellent at organization and a master at game-planning, says Linder, and with him holding the reins of the defense all the players know what their jobs are.

Offensive coordinator Gene Lais has been with Linder throughout the head coach's tenure at West, further solidifying the enterprise.

Linder believes the Jays' passing game will be very solid this year but freshmen will need to be a major part. Fortunately, three fine tailbacks are known commodities. They are 5-10, 190-pound sophomore Reuben Linton II of San Antonio, Texas; 5-11, 210-pound sophomore Zach Norman of Omaha, Neb.; and 5-9, 180-pound first-year player Tiras Bolton, also of Omaha. Norman, who played fullback last year, averaged 3.6 yards per carry in 2012. He's a pounder. Linton II uses quickness and finesse to get his yards.

One area of concern is on the line. Minnesota West has just one offensive lineman returning.

The team will continue attempting to reach a good balance between the run and the pass. "You need to be able to wear teams down and work that clock to control the game," Linder points out. Building a new offensive line, then, is key.

On defense, the word is "attack." The Jays will seek to put opposing offenses on the defensive. And when a team attacks on defense, it can't allow holes to develop -- which is where Barber has been so effective in the past.

Dreams of championships are natural as football teams verge upon new campaigns. Whether West's dream is realistic or not, only time will tell. But Linder feels confident of at least one thing: leadership.

"We've got an extremely hard-working group of young men. And they lead by example," he said. "I don't have a lot of rah-rah guys, I've got a lot of guys who lead by example."

Doug Wolter

Doug Wolter is the Daily Globe sports editor. He served as sports reporter, then sports editor, news editor and finally managing editor at the Daily Globe for 22 years before leaving for seven years to work as night news editor at the Mankato Free Press in Mankato. Doug now lives in Worthington with his wife, Sandy. They have three children and seven grandchildren. Doug, retired after a lengthy career in fast-pitch softball, enjoys reading, strumming his acoustic guitar and hanging around his grandchildren. He also writes books on fiction. Two of his stories, "The Genuine One" and "The Old Man in Section 129" have been distributed through a national publisher.

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