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Experience will be key for Thunder

"It's good to be back."

That's the sentiment of both Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College football coach Terry Fawcett and volleyball coach Laura Sylvester, as both teams prepare for the start of their respective seasons.

Fawcett begins his second year as head coach looking to improve on last season's 2-6 record, with the team missing the MCAC playoffs for the first time in four years. He believes better days are ahead thanks to key additions at key positions.

"This is a great group of guys," said Fawcett, who has 24 years of experience, including stints with St. Scholastica and a league semi-pro championship with the Superior Stampede. "We're where we want to be and this group of players is a positive group of young men."

Just over 50 players are out for the team including more than a dozen second-year players. Three members of last year's Thunder team moved on to four-year schools after last season. The program has produced 55 four-year players since 2011, including 11 who went on to play at NCAA Division I schools.

"At our level it's about life lessons and helping young men meet challenges," Fawcett said. "But we do offer a chance for players to continue their educations and we're always glad to see that happen."

Eleven members of last year's Thunder team earned MCAC State Academic awards.

On the field, though, Fawcett is hoping for a turnaround in fortunes. The quarterback position is up for grabs between two freshmen: Jonathan Casimir (Bellingham, Wash.) and DiJuan McCullom (Chicago, Ill.).

"They're both good players," Fawcett said. "DiJuan especially is a good athlete and he'll do multiple things for us no matter where he plays. Offensively, we should have a strong line and that's good for our running backs."

The team also has three literal veterans on it. One of them — defensive lineman Christopher Fitzpatrick of Tampa — is a combat veteran and Fawcett said that kind of experience can't help but make a difference.

"He's as nice a kid as you'll ever talk to," Fawcett said. "To have a couple of players who are 23 or 25 years old on your team also helps in terms of adding experience and maturity."

The team also has eight American Indian players, a point of considerable pride.

"That means a lot to the university and to all of us in general. We have a great culture on this team and I hope it leads to great things," he said.

The team plays four of its first six games at home — though none of the games will be in Cloquet — and has some new opponents.

"The league decided to shuffle the pack a little bit because there were some teams who hadn't played others in a while," Fawcett said.

Opening day is Sept. 2 against Ridgewater at the NBC Spartan Sports Complex in Superior, with the second game a week later against Northland at Duluth's Public Schools Stadium.

Meanwhile, Sylvester's volleyball team has 14 players — which is double the amount the team had at times a season ago.

"The numbers are great," Sylvester said, "but the best thing about the team is that we have four players back with experience from last year and another from two years ago."

Three of those returnees — Courtney Ableiter (Carlton), Tatianna Zimmerman (South Ridge) and Samantha Lorenz (Cloquet) are from Carlton County.

Added to that list are freshmen Gloria Kingbird and Taylor Anderson (Carlton), Shauna Laveau (Wrenshall), Kayla Jackson (South Ridge), Ashley Barnes (Barnum) plus Jasmine Cloud and Naazhe La Prairie (Fond du Lac Ojibwe), to give the team a distinctly local flavor.

"We have some talented players from good programs and that helps too," Sylvester said. "I think this is the most talented group we've had in my seven years here."

Sylvester is already praising her team's "volleyball IQ" after the start of practice on Monday.

"These players understand, and since so many of them do come from good programs they should be better able to handle the pace of college volleyball. It's a lot faster than high school and they will need to adapt."

But the majority of the team is still made up of first-year players, which means the group as a whole will need time to jell and find its identity.

"That usually takes about two weeks into the season," Sylvester said. "Until that point it's usually up and down, until the players learn their teammates and the coaches learn their abilities."

The team's first match is Aug. 30 at Central Lakes, with the first home match scheduled for Sept. 13 against Itasca at 6:30 p.m.

As of press time, Sylvester had not chosen a team captain, but is happy she has a number of choices.

"I think this is a confident group," Sylvester said. "The freshmen are very enthusiastic and the second-year players are showing the leadership we need them to show. It's nice to have them leading the way because the first-year players are all soaking things up like sponges. It will be fun to see how they progress."

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