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High School football: Trojans open season Friday

BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE Special teams for the Worthington Trojans football team line up during practice Tuesday afternoon in Worthington.1 / 2
BRIAN KORTHALS/DAILY GLOBE Returning letter winners for the Worthington Trojans football team (front row from left) Cole Bartels, Zach Bruns, Troy Ektnitphong, Jonathan Murillo, Robert Lovan, Logan Thuringer King Blanchette, (back row) Ty Veen, Torey Rogers, Carson Hagen, Joe Pavelko, Trevor Wietzema, Melik Moody, Peter Abraham, Erik Landgaard and Nate Russell.2 / 2

WORTHINGTON — In high school football, success doesn’t begin and end on Friday night. Its seeds are planted in every practice leading up to game night.

Worthington Trojans head coach Brad Grimmius is a true believer that to be successful, you’ve got to practice successfully. You’ve got to think and act like a winner, and you’ve got to be consistent at it. You can’t afford any letdowns.

That’s not to say the veteran WHS mentor takes losing in stride. Oh, no. Not at all.

“Ultimately, you want to win the championships. If that’s not your goal, you shouldn’t be playing any kind of athletics,” Grimmius said this week while talking about his 2014 Trojans.

Championships haven’t come easily for the WHS football program for quite a number of years. Winning hasn’t come easily, either. The 2013 Trojans finished 3-6, which was the same record they achieved in 2012. In fact, the last winning season the Trojans enjoyed occurred in 2005, when they were 7-5. From 2008 through 2013 the program finished no better than last year’s 3-6.

Grimmius continues to construct what he calls a “winning culture” in Worthington. Great strides were made in 2013, he says, when the senior class embraced their leadership roles and taught them well to a junior class that now must carry the baton.

“Championship athletes do not take time off in practice,” Grimmius maintains. And success?

“Success comes in different ways. It’s not always on the scoreboard. But I can guarantee you that our focus is to go out and win every game.”

Worthington will attempt to win its first game of the 2014 season Friday night in Redwood Falls against the Redwood Valley Cardinals. While most of Minnesota’s high school teams play their openers next week, the Trojans’ early start will pit them against an opponent they defeated last year, 14-6. Grimmius says the early game will be good for his team. It will allow WHS a timely bye week at the end of the regular season and before the playoff season begins, giving extra time for his players to heal.

With the Southwest Conference now ended and the newly-formed Big South Conference about to kick off, Worthington’s traditional non-conference opener against Fairmont has gone by the wayside. “It’s gonna be different for us not playing Fairmont,” Grimmius said. “The only thing the same for us is we’re playing the Cardinals.”

Speed and size

“This year one of our main strengths is good team speed. Also, up front we’re going to be bigger. … The big thing is, we’re going to have to be able to utilize that,” Grimmius said.

Tucker Sorenson, a 5-11, 160-pound sophomore, is penciled in as the starting quarterback following the graduation of last year’s QB, three-year starter Will Dudley. The left-handed Sorenson “has good footwork. Throws a really nice ball,” said Grimmius.

There are several talented running backs on the team beginning with 6-0, 175-pound senior fullback Troy Ektnitphong, who rushed for 237 yards in one game against Windom Area last season. Others include tailback Torey Rogers (Jr., 5-10, 175), slotback Johnny Murillo (Sr., 5-7, 215), Zach Bruns (Jr., 5-7, 170), Eric Landgaard (Jr., 5-11, 150), Robert Lovan (Jr., 5-7, 145) and sophomore Easton Sauerbrei. Grimmius says he’ll use the running backs in personnel groups depending on the team’s need for power or speed.

Holding down the line will be Carson Hagen at center (Sr., 6-0, 225), King Blanchette (Jr., 5-11, 170) and Ben Ahlschlager (Soph., 6-1, 250) at guard, and Trevor Wietzema (Sr., 6-3, 270) and Joe Pavelko (Sr., 6-0, 210) at tackle. All but Ahlschlager started for the Trojans last year.

Worthington will operate its offense out of multiple sets this fall and use the trapping game to break backs free. “It’s the toughest thing to run in high school sports, but it’s been good for us,” said Grimmius.

The Trojans will be without one of their top seniors this fall, senior wide receiver Will Mulder, who was lost to an offseason injury. But confidence is high in practice.

“Our big focus is we want tempo. We want to get into rhythm. Last year, for instance, in our game with Pipestone Area (a 26-0 Worthington victory), we got into a rhythm, and things clicked,” said the head coach, who added that in practice the goal is try not to allow monotony to set in. The idea is to change things up, keep players on their toes. That way, players are more focused on what they’re doing, and they can get maximum repetitions to get ready for games.

Worthington was hurt last year by untimely penalties and missed assignments. If the Trojans can limit their mistakes this time around, they may have a chance to turn around last year’s 3-6 record.

Stop the run

First-year defensive coordinator Ken McCuen is teaching his unit a hybrid 3-4, 4-3 scheme with a little bit of a 5-2 look. The Trojans’ dee will run a lot of different fronts, he says.

“Teams are going to have to throw the ball on us, because our primary focus is to stop the run,” said McCuen, who led the Southwest Huskerz to a Southern Plains Football League amateur championship this past summer.

Hagen at end, Wietzema at tackle and Rogers at middle linebacker will be the Trojans’ three defensive bulwarks this season. Also key to the team’s fortunes will be cornerbacks Gbrown Ochothow and Ektnitphong, and sophomore Zack Boever at free safety and junior Tony Lopez at strong safety.

Ochothow and Ektnitphong have excellent speed. “We believe we have a tremendous cornerback tandem,” said McCuen.

In practice, McCuen said this week, “We’re doing a lot well. It’s just getting the scheme down and running it to a T.” McCuen says he doesn’t want his defense to have to think too much. He’s keeping things simple, teaching by repetition, and hoping that by game-time his charges will be able to just “go out and play hard.”

Doing things right

Ektnitphong, who will be a leader in 2014 both on the offensive and defensive side of the football, appears to speak for his teammates when he says success should follow if the team practices hard and doesn’t cut corners. His words mirror Grimmius’ philosophy when reminded that WHS hasn’t had a winning season since 2005.

“That’s always in the back of our minds. We want to win,” he said on Tuesday, just before the start of another grueling practice on a hot and sultry afternoon. “But we also want to win the right way. The score doesn’t always tell how the game was played.”

Team speed and team togetherness — along with the coaches’ tactics designed to make the best use of the team’s unique talents, combine to give the Trojans a pre-season kind of confidence, Ektnitphong said.

“We’re feeling good,” he maintained. “Coming into that first week of practice, we already felt comfortable with all the new things.”

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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