Grizzlies make jump to Class A 11-man

North Woods’ Clayton Janssen is caught from behind by Mountain Iron-Buhl’s Dillon Drake during the first half of last September’s game in Mountain Iron.

COOK — North Woods has some pretty significant adjustments to make for the 2019 season.

Not only are the Grizzlies going from 9-man football up to 11-man, but they are also preparing to play with fewer players after graduating 12 seniors in 2018 and 10 the year before that. The 2019 team has six seniors and seven juniors.

In addition, North Woods has to adapt to the different, 11-man game in Section 7, while the players and coaches have to get ready to play an entirely different slate of opponents.

“It’s kind of a double whammy in a way,’’ said head coach John Jirik. North Woods has no familiarity with its opponents because those Class A teams don’t cross into the 9-man arena. “It’s totally different who you’re playing.’’

Regarding to the adjustment to 11-man football, Jirik said, it is “good in practice right now’’ and everyone is figuring it out.

On offense, he said, there are five linemen instead of three, the openings are small and defenses close them quicker. Defense is also a different animal because there are a lot more cross blocks and pull blocking coming at you.

“We won’t know kind of how we’re doing until we get rolling,’’ Jirik said.

The student-athletes have taken the changes in stride and seem to be having fun, the coach added.

“It’s been a real positive beginning. It’s been a pleasure to coach this year’’ with everyone coming together to learn the 11-man game.

The mindset is good, he added, and the players are “just thinking about playing football’’ and earning a spot on the squad.

As far as who will make the starting lineup, Jirik said, he and the coaching staff are really looking hard at 16-20 players. A starting lineup will be set for the upcoming Deer River scrimmage today, but he expects that to change as the season goes along.

The coach believes the offense will “be strong in the backfield’’ with running backs and in the tight end spot. There is still a lot to learn in other areas, he added.

One obstacle this season could be the team’s size.

“Physical size is not our strength this year,’’ said Jirik, who is hopeful his club’s athleticism makes up for that. In addition, “bigger is not always better.’’

With somewhat lower numbers of juniors and seniors, the Grizzlies will rely on younger players (8-10 boys in the freshman and sophomore classes) and not as much older depth.

“We’re going to learn a lot as the season goes on.’’

North Woods opens the season at home on Thursday, Aug. 29, against International Falls.

North Woods

Grizzlies

Head coach: John Jirik (29 years)

Last year’s record/how finished in playoffs: 4-6/lost in Section 7 9-Man semifinals.

Key players lost to graduation: 12 seniors led by linebacker/quarterback Chase Kleppe and wide receiver Tanner Barto.

Key returning players: Seniors Trevor Morrison (TE/DE), Nathan Crain (RB/LB), Clay Janssen (WR/DB); juniors Austin Sokoloski (DT/RB); and sophomore, TJ Chiabotti (RB/LB).

Others expected to contribute: A combination of players in grades 9-12.

Outlook for 2019: “We were moved to (Section) 7A this year. It will be a learning process.’’

Team strength: “Good athletes throughout each grade level and a good base of players in grades 9-12. Excellent attitudes and hard working student-athletes.’’

Team weakness: “We are physically smaller and have fewer players than the previous few years.’’

Favorite to win the section: “We are new to the section and 11-man and have not played teams in our section. Not sure of the favorite.’’

Anything else you would like to discuss: “We are learning the 11-man game and look forward to kicking off the season. We expect to improve quite a bit week to week as we gain more experience.’’

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