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The toughest line to cross

Many athletic programs across the nation take much pride in defense. The prevailing attitude is if they can't score, they can't beat us. The Minnesota West football program is no exception. Ranked ninth nationally in total team defense and No. 1 ...

Many athletic programs across the nation take much pride in defense. The prevailing attitude is if they can't score, they can't beat us.

The Minnesota West football program is no exception.

Ranked ninth nationally in total team defense and No. 1 in the Minnesota Community College Conference Southern Division, the Bluejays have a lot to be proud of.

But the West coaching staff and players don't want to know of or hear about rankings. They only want to prepare for the next contest and improve as a team each week.

Preparation for the battle in the trenches is no easy feat and includes the physical, emotional and mental aspects of the game.

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While the bane of many student-athletes is the multiple drills they must go through in practice, the West players are always eager to run the exercises needed to prepare for their next opponent.

"We don't run drills just to get kids winded, that's not the point," West head coach Jeff Linder said. "We make it a point to explain why we do each drill. It's important for them to understand why we are doing a drill and, in that way, they work harder to achieve their goals."

Another part of the physical aspect is knowing where to be on any given play and working within the system. If one player goes his own way, things start to open up for the opposition. If players try to focus on individual success, the team often suffers.

"We stress that they need to play within the system," Linder said. "Once you break away from the system it weakens our defense and it starts springing leaks."

It is Scott Barber, West's defensive coordinator, who is in charge of making sure his players remain on the same page and work within the system. Barber's players all have a great respect for him and the job he does preparing them for each game. But he'll be the first to tell you there is always room for improvement.

"We haven't played a perfect game on defense yet," Barber explained. "In any great defense, the players all have to know where each other is and what they're doing at all times. We've done a good job, but we can do even better."

Anyone who has ever played football will tell you that it is a highly emotional game. When you are up things are grand, but when you're down its hard to know what's going on. But a level-headed staff can do wonders to keep things in check.

"You can't get caught up in the ups and downs of the game," Linder said. "We really try to stress that you can play with emotion, but you can't play emotionally."

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Easier said than done, especially when your opponent is driving the ball and your backs are against the goal line. Sometimes it comes down to a leader on the field to help the team remain focused.

"We don't really have to say anything, it is more of just a look," Bluejay defensive captain Justin Olsen said. "We just look at each other and know that now is the time to stop them."

Mental preparation begins Monday afternoon and carries through to the end of the game. The week begins with deciphering film, acknowledging tendencies and evaluating options.

"Coach Barber has a great football mind," Olsen said. "He keeps us focused on our plan and really knows what to call in certain situations."

"It's really a chess game out there and the coaches are so focused on the chessboard and what's going on," Linder added. "It's the coach that can make adjustments the fastest that can swing the momentum and make the difference between winning or losing. Coach Barber has done an excellent job in that regard."

Physical, emotional and mental preparation are the cornerstones of any competitive athletic program, but in the end the team has to put up or shut up.

The West defense, well prepared by its coaches, greet each Saturday baring its teeth.

"We are an aggressive defense," Olsen said. "We are a fast, physical defense that plays the game the way its supposed to be played. We love to hit and we want to see 11 helmets on the ball every play."

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With that smash-mouth intensity, the Bluejays will enter the postseason against the Mesabi Range Norsemen Saturday at Trojan Field in Worthington. The game is scheduled for a 1 p.m. start.

The Norsemen are currently ranked second in the MCCC North with an overall record of 5-4. Mesabi rank in the middle of the conference in team offense and defense.

It appears that the Norsemen will have to bring an A+ game to town if they have any hopes of advancing to the finals of the MCCC playoffs.

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