Football: Rebels' reign continues
Class AA State Tournament Quarterfinal
What: Moose Lake-Willow River (8-2) vs. Barnesville (9-2)
When: 7 p.m., Friday, Nov. 9
Where: Brainerd High School
MOOSE LAKE — Since being the water boy in sixth grade for the Moose Lake-Willow River football team, Aidan Szczyrbak has always looked up to Dave Louzek.
Nowadays, though, the physically-ensuing lineman looks down to most, but not his inspiring 5-foot-7 coach.
"I wouldn't want to play for anyone else," said the 6-foot-3, 250-pound Szczyrbak, a senior lineman for the Rebels. "He accepts everyone and makes everyone want to here."
That was scene earlier this week when storied ML-WR (8-2) was preparing for their 12th state tournament in the last 13 years, including their latest Class AA state quarterfinal against Barnesville (9-2) on Friday, Nov. 9, at 7 p.m. in Brainerd.
Practice on Monday, Nov. 5, was like clockwork, including reps in the old Moose Lake High School baseball outfield, followed by walkthroughs in the nearby gymnasium. Film came afterward, along with dinner, music and plenty of Rebels having fun.
Dinner included roughly 100 brats and hot dogs, chips and cookies. Louzek oversaw his entire team after grilling.
"He puts in so much time," Szczyrbak said.
And this time of year is like tradition. Under Louzek, now in his 20th season, the Rebels, along with their dizzying run of state tournament trips, have advanced to the semifinals seven times and prep bowls in 2009, 2011 and 2012, coming up short on each occasion.
The latter two were to Caledonia, who has had a stranglehold on Class AA football for the past decade and are again, in this year's state tournament field.
If ML-WR can run off a couple more wins — they've won their past five straight — perhaps another meeting with the top-ranked, unbeaten Warriors would be in the offing.
"The whole goal is to be in position to face Caledonia," Louzek said. "They're the best of the best."
The Rebels aren't bad themselves this fall, running behind the likes of brothers Trent and Blake Juhl, along with Anikan Oswald. The three combined for 242 yards on the ground in ML-WR's 22-6 win over Royalton, with Trent Juhl, a 1,200-yard senior, leading the way to the Section 7AA title last week.
Yet, in only an act seen in high school sports, it was Juhl and Co. who were leading teammate Bo Moffett down the right sideline in the game's final play.
For Moffett, a special needs senior, it was his first touchdown, as the No. 53 in red ran 62 yards to the end zone at Esko Stadium.
"It was pretty special," Juhl said. "He was pretty pumped up at school the next day."
"He's as much a part of this team as anyone," added Louzek of Moffett, who often gets the ball on the game's last play, but runs out-of-bounds toward the coach. "To see Bo in the end zone, it was exciting for everyone."
Everyone also got to see the defensive dominance on display last week, including Szczyrbak, fellow seniors Adam Dragicevich, Logan Peterson and more.
In fact, Royalton didn't score until the final quarter last week, when when 6-3, 280-pound offensive lineman Josh Smieja entered in at running back and plowed in for a 1-yard touchdown to pull the Royals within 8-6.
A failed two-point try, followed by Trent Juhl's 2-yard plunge and sophomore Blake's conversion extended the Rebels' lead to 16-6, before Moffett put it away.
Meanwhile, Szczyrbak and the fellow 6-3, 250-pound Dragicevich are constant disruptors in the backfield, using their large frames to dismantle would-be linemen and create chaos for opponents. That's quite fitting, as Szczyrbak's father, Kevin, is an assistant, while Aidan's older brother, Ezra, is a senior lineman at Northern Iowa.
Peterson, on the other hand, at just 5-9, 155 pounds, leads the team in tackles from his ball-hawking linebacker position, nearing 100. He and his teammates' mindset is simple.
"Get after them all," Peterson said Monday at practice, simply referring to it as "GATA."
"You want to punish the guy in front of you," he said.
They'll certainly need to keep that mindset Friday when taking on the Section 8AA champion Trojans, as Adam Tonsfeldt, Chase Brenner and Nick Detloff have all rushed for over 400 yards this fall, including Detloff for more than 1,000.
Still, that's not scaring the Rebels, northeastern Minnesota's most consistent winner.
"We never talk about rebuilding," Louzek said. "We graduate good seniors every year and expect the next group to be as good or better every year. We expect to compete for a state championship."
This November is no different.
"Honestly, I think we can win the whole thing," Peterson said. "There isn't a team we can't beat."
"It's always exciting to get back to the state tournament and once you're in, you never know what's going to happen," the senior Oswald said. "We're feeling pretty good, but every team deserves to be here just like us, so we can't look past them."
A win on Friday would again bring back the Rebels to U.S. Bank Stadium, home of the Minnesota Vikings, where ML-WR advanced to a season ago, one win short of the Prep Bowl.
"None of us want to be done," Juhl said.
And if they get another opportunity this time around, they want to get it done for their longtime leader.
"He deserves a ring," Szczyrbak said of man with a career record of 184-46, including 13-2 in section title games.
"We just want it to pay off for him," Dragicevich added. "He means the world to us."
And around grilling, turning up the music and smiling on Monday, they too, mean the world to him.
"This is the best part of my day," Louzek said. "This time around, the kids are something that I wouldn't trade for anything."