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Chris Murphy, Published October 03 2013

Program's methods work for Mahnomen during its 19-game winning streak

Mahnomen, Minn. - Mahnomen High School football player Kal Handyside looked down at his helmet, which is dented more than the bumper on a demolition derby car.

“This is brand new,” Handyside said before practice Wednesday.

Handyside is a 5-foot-10, 185-pound lineman and hasn’t grown since he was a freshman. He also hasn’t given up his starting positions since then either.

He and his helmet – scuff marks, mud and all – represent everything that is Mahnomen football. The Indians like to hit, and they don’t look like much. Their 19-game winning streak – the second-longest current winning streak in Minnesota – says otherwise.

“You aren’t going to find anything too special,” Mahnomen coach John Clark Jr. said of his players and his team’s stat sheet. “There’s something in the water. Kids in Mahnomen just have a different mindset. They love to hit. They love to be physical. They love to play football. We get accused of being boring and simple sometimes, but it works for us and our kids buy into what we’re doing.”

Mahnomen is 5-0 and the top-ranked team in Class 1A. The Indians have outscored their opponents 272-20. Those are the only numbers the Indians care about.

“I try to just preach the fact that we’ve been successful,” Clark said. “They believe what we’re doing is right. You have that hard-hitting attitude. You have the attitude that what we’re doing is better than anyone else.”

The season totals for Mahnomen are stats one would normally see from an individual in a game.

Mahnomen’s leading rusher is Austin Reitan with 340 yards. Kody Lefebvre’s five catches and 96 yards lead the way at receiver. Their leading passer is 2-for-6 with 120 yards in quarterback Tommy Pavek.

The defense has forced 10 fumbles, 11 interceptions and given up 20 points, 121 total rushing yards, and 18 first downs in five games. Their leading tackler is linebacker John Francis with 19 tackles.

Of the 272 points the offense has scored, running back Bob Bjorge’s seven touchdowns lead the way.

“We’re really big on team,” Handyside said. “We condition as a team. It’s pretty easy to do when you go to state every year.”

When the Indians say there is no star on their football team, they aren’t kidding.

“We’ve had stars in the past, but they hadn’t acted like stars,” Clark said. “I think the kids buy into that. It’s just amazing how the older kids mentor the younger kids in this program. That’s been the best thing for us. Our seniors are just as good as the assistant coaches half the time.”

The team itself is what shines. Mahnomen has had 15 different players score touchdowns, 17 different runners account for 1,581 rushing yards and nine different players account for 11 interceptions.

With an enrollment of 135 students, size isn’t an excuse for Mahnomen’s domination. Pillager (198 enrollment), Frazee (238), Walker-Hackensack-Akeley (184) and Red Lake (169) all have a larger enrollment and have lost to the Indians this season.

“We actually should be in Class 9-man, but we requested to move up,” Clark said.

Senior Nathan Hanson began as a safety when he was a sophomore. Every week that season, Clark would ask his defensive coordinator to find someone else to play safety. Hanson hasn’t left that spot since, playing safety and tight end in all 19 wins during the winning streak.

“First practice we learned we have to go hard and outwork the other team,” Hanson said. “When it comes time and it’s all on the line, we can get that extra yard because of our work.”

The last time Mahnomen lost was in the 2011 Class 1A state championship game 35-20 to Dawson-Boyd. It was the Indians’ only loss of the season. The Indians haven’t forgotten that feeling, and the seniors want to graduate without ever feeling it again.

“I remember all year we were doing great,” Hanson said. “They punched us right in the lips. They came out harder than we did, and they were stronger than we were. They outworked us. It was different.”

It’s a simple formula for Mahnomen.

“We can’t not hit,” Handyside said. “If we don’t hit in practice, we play terribly.”

Don’t tell Handyside’s helmet Mahnomen is planning on nine more weeks of this.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Chris Murphy at (701) 241-5548