AURORA — The Mesabi East football team will look to keep trending upwards in 2019 following a 7-3 record last year.
Below is a capsule look at the Giants, as well as an interview with head coach Steve Grams and a story from the Aug. 9 edition of the MDN as Mesabi East prepped for its zero week game with Rush City on Aug. 23. The Giants fell in the season opener, 22-14, to the Tigers.
Head coach: Steve Grams (12th year head coach, 25 years total)
Last year’s record/playoff finish: 7-3/lost in 7AA semifinals to Moose Lake/Willow River.
Key losses to graduation: Tyler Baribeau, QB/S; Trent Braaten, C/DT; Kobe Grivette, OL/DE; Zach Helander, WR/C; Josh James, RB/LB; Josh LaFreniere, WR/LB; Easton Soular, WR/DE.
Key returners: Sr. Cole Meyer, RB/LB, 1060 yards and 17 rushing touchdowns on 133 carries; 74 tackles, three sacks, eight tackles for loss. Sr. Hunter Levander, RB/C, 61 tackles, seven TFLs. Sr. Tyler Ritter, OL/DE, 35 tackles, six TFLs, three sacks. Sr. Evan Mattson, OL/DE, 27 tackles, three TFLs. Jr. Gavin Skelton, RB/LB, 525 yards and seven rushing touchdowns on 107 carries; 229 yards and two receiving touchdowns on 12 catches; 130 tackles, 14 TFLs, three sacks. Jr. Kaden Maki, OL/DT.
Others expected to contribute: Seniors Devin Litchy (OL/DE) and Jagr Wippler (WR/C); Juniors Cole Swanson (WR/C), Hunter Hannuksela (QB/S), Charlie Karish (RB/C), Nate Leete (RB/C) and Jameson Hill (WR/C); Sophomores Hayden Soular (OL/DL), Ethan Sickel (OL/DL), Logan Schroeder (RB/LB), Jack Ribich (WR/LB) and Trevor Cole (RB/LB).
Team strength: A ton of athleticism, some experience and a great group of kids to coach and be around.
Team weakness: Loss of many key starters, not a lot of depth.
Season outlook: High expectations. Will have to stay healthy. It will be a great year, especially if the new complex gets completed.
Goals for the season: Our philosophy: “Work Hard and Have Fun.” Compete with the new schedule we have (Eveleth-Gilbert, Virginia, Two Harbors, International Falls, Greenway). Get back to the semifinals and see what happens.
Team to beat in the section: Moose Lake/Willow River.
The Mesabi East football team saw their 7-3 season end last year with a 7AA semifinal loss to Moose Lake/Willow River.
As soon as the season was over, however, the Giants were ready to put in the work to reach new heights in 2019.
With a new sports complex coming to Aurora, head coach Steve Grams and his team have even more reasons to be fired up about the prospects of this year.
“Last year we finally saw some success because we had guys who were willing to put in the time and the effort,” Grams said at Mesabi East’s practice Thursday. “We always talk about effort and attitude. From last year, being 7-3 and being knocked off by Moose Lake, it was a learning experience with these guys.”
Mesabi East is one of only two teams in the state already holding official practices this week as they and Rush City have scheduled a zero week game against one another in order to fill out there schedules. The zero week contest allows both teams to hit the field a week early for practice and hold a game a week earlier than other teams in exchange for a bye week some time during the season.
Cutting the summer fun a week short might not normally be something football players want to do, but the Giants are taking it in stride and were more than ready to get back on the field.
“I think after last year with how good we played, we’re excited to play football again,” said senior running back Cole Meyer. “Right after last year ended, we were talking about this next year and just how excited we were.”
Meyer’s fellow running back and senior teammate, Hunter Levander agreed.
“The guys were excited to get to work after last year. Guys wanted to get to work right after that loss. They wanted to get ready for this year and get better.”
That excitement translated to an exciting offseason in the weight room, according to the two seniors.
“A lot of guys put up some impressive numbers,” Levander said. “It gets us excited.
“The numbers are very impressive,” Meyer emphasized. “Our big guys were putting up some great numbers. We lost a few lineman last year but a couple of the younger guys like [sophomores] Hayden Soular and Ethan Sickle are ready to step up big for us and do a good job.”
“We’re very excited for the line this year,” Levander added.
“They’ll be a strong line this year, for sure,” Meyer finished.
On offense, Coach Grams will be leaning on Meyer and Levander this season as well as a few other key pieces in the backfield.
“Cole had over a thousand yards for us at running back. Hunter will be playing important roles for us on offense, defense and special teams. Gavin Skelton will start at fullback and middle linebacker for us and he’s a heck of an athlete. He’s not going to be leaving the field very often. Hunter Hannuksela is our new quarterback. He’s only a junior and he’s got a strong arm and he’s quick.
“Our backfield is looking to be pretty good. Offensively, our line is big this year but we’re a little thin on reserves so we have to play it smart.”
The Giants look to have around 30 players on their varsity roster, but with zero week starting things a little early, Grams hopes those numbers will improve over the next week or two.
“We’re still trying to grab a few more guys. Most of them came back from last year and some might still be on vacation or they’re working. We’re pretty open with their schedules so we’re hoping a few more come out next week. All we ask is that they show up and be held accountable.”
Besides making large gains in the win column, the team hopes to make use of their new stadium at some point this season. While they hoped it would be ready for their season opener, it doesn’t appear that will be the case. Grams hopes now it might be ready by week 4 when the Giants host Eveleth-Gilbert.
“It’s exciting [to see the work on the field],” Meyer said. “We’ve been waiting for it for a couple of years. Now that’s it’s finally coming together, it’s just a dream come true.”
“We just hope to play on it as long as we can this season,” Levander added. “As far into the playoffs as we can.”
While Grams and the football team are excited for the new complex, the veteran head coach says he’s excited for all Mesabi East athletes that will get to take advantage of it.
“Our guys are pumped up for it but I’m hoping it helps any athlete come out and join a sport. I don’t care if it’s football, soccer, track, baseball, softball. We’re going to have one of the best complexes around and I want all of our kids and our community to appreciate it once it’s ready.”
Seven wins and three losses is a high mark for the Giants and they’ll need to be smart at practice if they want to improve on that and make a deeper run in the playoffs.
“We have to stay strong and we have to stay healthy,” Grams explained. “We only have 28 or 29 guys at practice so we can’t afford any injuries. We’ll be limiting contact for our guys up until that first game.
“But we also have to focus in on effort and attitude. The kids have to keep a positive attitude. They have to know they can be successful. They got a piece of it last year and we’ll move on from there.”
According to the leaders of the team, the commitment to improving is there and the Giants will be ready for whatever comes their way in 2019.
“We just need to be working even harder at practice,” Meyer said. “That’s really what it is. Everyone’s got to be committed and we are. Everyone is excited. You can feel it.”