Norse welcome bullseye on their back

Mesabi Range's Myles Ratliff drives through the middle during the first half of last Saturday's home game against Fond du Lac.

WAHPETON, N.D. — Is it safe to say the Mesabi Range football team has a target on their back? “Absolutely,” says head coach Tom Inforzato.

The Norsemen are ranked No. 16 in the country, have the top seed in the MCAC East locked up and are a perfect 7-0 heading into today’s regular season finale against North Dakota State College of Science.

The Wildcats are no slouches themselves, however. NDSCS is receiving votes on the latest NJCAA football poll, will be the top-seeded playoff team in the West and have a 6-1 record nearly rivaling the Norsemen.

With the postseason running through Mesabi Range, it would be easy for the Norse to relax heading into their final regular season game. Inforzato says that couldn’t be further from the case.

“We’re approaching this game as if the playoffs have already started. We don’t want to drop this game. The guys understand that there is a lot on the line and a lot of proving left to do. To play the best team from the other division in our last game, it technically doesn’t mean anything for either of us. But we definitely don’t want to stumble heading into the playoffs.”

The Norse departed from Virginia this morning on a five-hour trip to Wahpeton, N.D., to face a team Inforzato believes is fairly similar to Mesabi Range.

“In a lot of ways, they’re a lot like us. They have a fairly balanced game but they run the ball well. In this day and age and all across our league, there are a lot of passing football teams that go out four or five wide and play the finesse game.

“But fans assume that Mesabi Range is that we’re maybe a little more blue collar in our game plans. We run the ball, play tough defense and we earn what we put up on the scoreboard. I see that in NDSCS as well. They definitely want to run a ball and they have a league-leading running back that’s going to help them do that. He’s a grinder. They’re going to want to play the same way we’re going to and it’s our job to stop them.”

The Wildcats outrush the Norseman by about 30 yards a game (226.1-195.6) but Mesabi can pass when they need to, averaging 148.1 passing yards to only 94.3 for NDSCS. Scoring wise, the Norsemen score 35 points a game to the Wildcat’s 29.9 and only give up 12.6 compared to NDSCS’s 18.3.

After locking up the MCAC East title last week with a 64-14 rout of Fond du Lac, the Mesabi players were able to celebrate a bit. But it was also a big victory for the coaching staff.

“The guys were elated and proud but their focus quickly shifted to this week and the playoffs,” Inforzato said. “Us as coaches, we’re just as proud. This is our first divisional title as coaches, and in my years, that’s the one thing we haven’t gotten as a coaching staff. It’s been almost a decade since we’ve been there as a program.

“It means something but it’s almost short lived because the football season flies by and it’s on to the next thing. We want to revisit that 2017 experience where we got to play in a state championship game and go to Chicago and play in a bowl game. Our mentality is one game at a time but we can recognize that there are bigger things at stake here.”

That 2017 season, the first for Inforzato as head coach of the Norsemen, is exactly why Mesabi Range has a target on their back.

“There’s been a target on us ever since that season in this league. When our staff took this program over and made a really big time face lift, people started noticing. We’ve had some success over the last couple of years and been impressing when maybe people thought we wouldn’t.

“We have a great story with the ESPN piece on Taquarius Wair and a great season this year on top of that. Every team wants to clip someone that’s ranked, someone that’s undefeated. It’s a lot of stuff other team’s coaches are putting on their chalkboard.

“Is there a bullseye on our backs? Absolutely. And we’ll play that part. The team will and the coaching staff will. Everyone brings their best game when we come to town and we expect them to be ready to go.”

Mesabi Range and North Dakota State College of Science kick off in Wahpeton today at 1:30 p.m.

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