For Barnum head football coach Mike Klyve, victory in Thursday's season opener against Aitkin in Barnum would be a dream come true, for more reasons than one.
The Bombers have fallen on hard times in recent years, with a 1-17 record over the last two seasons as young players took their lumps.
"It's been hard, no denying that," Klyve said. "But the end result is that we have some kids who are very hungry to win."
Numbers have been down in the program in recent years so Barnum wasn't able to field a junior varsity team — which made it doubly difficult when many of the younger players had to step up at the varsity level.
"We had three seniors a year and we'd start five or six freshmen and sophomores," Klyve said. "Now those young players are juniors and seniors and they've been very good about putting in their work."
This year, the team has 41 players out in grades 9-12, which will enable a true junior varsity team to give the younger players valuable experience against their own age levels.
"Recently we've had a junior varsity age group playing varsity games," Klyve said. "That's been difficult in terms of results."
Two years ago, Barnum went 0-9, a low point for the proud program.
"It was tough for everyone," Klyve added. "Those young kids, they really took their lumps. But now they're ready to show everybody that they want to win and they know how to play. They'll do everything in their power to get that 'W.'"
The Gobblers dropped their opening game last season before winning seven in a row, including victories over Duluth Denfeld, Esko and Moose Lake-Willow River, before being upset in the first round of the Section 8AAA playoffs, finishing 7-2.
"Aitkin is a great program, they're coming out of Class AAA and they have a lot of wins," Klyve said. "But starting with a win would be huge and would get us rolling."
He said the extremely strong work ethic of the players has been a great surprise as practices start.
"They have showed up in the weight room this summer, and that's where it all starts," Klyve said. "They've had a really good summer and it's showing up on the field."
Team captains are WR/LB Drake Weets, who missed all of last season with an ACL injury, quarterback Tyler Nynas and his twin brother, Jake, who plays running back and linebacker, along with junior Sam Goodwin. The latter is a 6-foot-4, 240-pound two-way lineman.
"Sam is the kind of kid who can dominate and just goes all game long," Klyve said. "All the captains are returning starters."
But Klyve also said the coaches have used the last two years as positive motivation.
"Our staff did a great job staying positive and we told the kids that this (losing) doesn't have to be forever," he said. "It can be temporary but it will take hard work. You have to have kids who are strong and in good shape. We think we do, and we're excited to get out there."
MOOSE LAKE-WILLOW RIVER
Meanwhile, down the road in Moose Lake-Willow River, coach Dave Louzek is recovering from what in recent years has been considered unthinkable — a losing season for his Rebels.
The perennial section champs won their first three games last season but then lost four straight, including two games by a total of three points. After roughing up Hermantown in the regular season finale, the Rebels lost 42-40 at home to Rush City in the playoffs to finish 4-5 overall.
"Last season, having that record was below what we've done in the past but three of our losses were by three points or less," Louzek said. "We were in a lot of close games and we played a great game against Hermantown, which we hoped would give us momentum. It was disappointing to lose in the first round (of the playoffs) but that provides motivation, focus and a chance to look at expectations."
One of those expectations has been a winning record. Last year that didn't happen and Louzek said it was hard to avoid a feeling of complacency.
"I think that does set in, taking it (winning) for granted," he said. "Some of these kids don't know anything different from being a section champion. It's easy to lose sight of how much extra work needs to be done. As coaches, we work hard to keep (the players) focused on not just showing up and being good. But you're working with teenagers and you have to accept that."
"What we have to avoid is kids expecting to be good simply because they are Rebel football players," Louzek added.
Unlike in Barnum, there wasn't a lot of football activity in Moose Lake this summer.
"We have never had a super good showing in summer because we have a lot of two- and three-sport athletes who were playing summer baseball and basketball," Louzek said. "We always encourage the kids to be busy doing something, so it was a typical summer."
Team captains are quarterback Ian Coil, DE/TE Ryan Barrett, OT/DT Ethan Tomczak and OG/LB Dilan Louzek.
"We need those kids to step up," Louzek said. "We as coaches say the players do have something to prove, to the alumni and great players who came before them. This is their opportunity to regain the success and rebuild the tradition that has come before them. The kids share the feeling and the coaches are really emphasizing it."
The Rebels start their season against the same team they ended last year's regular season playing: Hermantown. Last year's Rebels won that game 37-24. The two teams meet in Willow River at 7 p.m. tonight (Thursday, Aug. 31) to start the season.
"You know what you're going to get when you play Hermantown and we'll see where we're at as a team pretty early," Louzek said. "It's a great opening game. Our kids need to be focused and that happens when you play a good team, a well-coached team like Hermantown instead of a lower team that you can beat and still not play well. We'll find out right off the bat if we're ready or if we have more work to do.
"Will the kids come in with a chip on their shoulder or will they settle and think they won't be as good as some of our other teams?"
Knowing Louzek and with his reputation, the smart bet is on the former.