‘This is personal’

West Fargo football coach Jay Gibson felt fortunate to knock Minot out of the playoffs in a 21-14 quarterfinal game last year.

Gibson said aside from a handful of plays – the Packers’ three touchdowns and the Magicians’ two turnovers – MHS “totally dominated” his team.

The teams open the season against each other in a Class AAA non-region game at 8 p.m. tonight at Duane Carlson Stadium.

“They really played well,” said Gibson, in his 23rd year with WFHS. “Crucial and untimely errors cost them a ton. They had first-and-goal on the one and didn’t score. There’s a couple reasons why they didn’t get it, but it was not making that crucial play when you have to.”

The Magicians have 24 seniors and return starters at nearly every skill position on both sides of the ball from a team that finished 7-3. The Packers lost nearly every starter and 20 graduates from a 7-4 team that was East Region co-champions. Defending champion Bismarck High beat West Fargo 22-8 in a semifinal.

MHS doesn’t have to worry about first-team all-state running back and graduate Preston Lehmann, who scored all three touchdowns against the Magi. West Fargo has to contend with first-team all-state quarterback Alex Yanosko, a dual-threat, who couldn’t have picked a better opponent to start against in his senior year.

“This is more than just a game,” Yanosko said. “This is personal. You know, these guys knocked us out of a legitimate chance of doing something last year. I don’t know about them, but I take that very personally. We’re gonna bring it to ’em. I’m hoping for a blow out.”

That will be the gist of his pregame speech to teammates, but MHS will need to prove it’s learned from the issues that plagued the offense in that final game.

Graduate Cody Haugen mishandled a punt late in the game and West Fargo recovered. MHS ninth-year coach Barry Holmen said the return game is still a concern. Holmen would also like to see his team finish in the red zone.

“I thought we had good success moving the ball at times in that playoff game and I really thought our defense played well,” Holmen said. “We gave up a big touchdown run, kind of in the middle of the contest, that kind of swung the tide and then we had a huge missed opportunity when we were on the one-yard line and we had penalty, penalty, fumble and miss a scoring chance that would’ve put us ahead late in the game.”

MHS should feel better about short-yardage opportunities with the return of second-team all-state running back Brady Lampert. Joining him is senior fullback Kolton Larson, a two-time all-state linebacker, who missed most of his junior season following a foot injury.

Yanosko is eager to find his wide receivers, but knows offensive success starts with the running game, which worked well in the previous meeting with the Packers.

“We had a lot of fly-sweep stuff, which is our sideways stuff,” Yanosko said. “They kind of sucked in and we pulled it under and they had so many contain guys that they didn’t have enough middle guys to stop it, so we got a good little pop of yards every once in awhile up the middle.”

Yanosko attributed the goal line problems to mental mistakes and confusion with snap counts, but left Wednesday’s practice feeling the best he has about the offense through preseason camp.

Gibson expects to use the game as a measuring device for his inexperienced squad and knows even slowing Minot’s offense may be a tall challenge.

“They ran all over us, that quarterback’s a super stud and they had a nice, quick receiver and they just did almost anything they wanted to,” Gibson said. “It’s just they kept making mistakes. I really think Minot’s gonna be a tremendous team.”

Larson is expecting a different look from the West Fargo offense, which is led by senior quarterbacks Scott Cameron and Jacob Hoy. Gibson will use both under center and occasionally split Hoy out wide to better utilize his athleticism. A committee of running backs will try to replicate the effectiveness of Lemann, who rushed for 1,001 yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior.

“We’re thinking they’re not gonna be going single back in the gun,” Larson said. “They’re not gonna be isolating one guy. They’re gonna do a lot of, I don’t know, double backs we’re thinking now and a lot of option stuff ’cause they don’t really have, as far as we know, a dude that’s really gonna stick out … so they’re gonna be spreading it a lot more.”

Lehmann had the longest play of the last meeting with a 78-yard touchdown run.

“Offensively, they are in a spread formation and they use the entire field,” Holmen said, “and when you do that it’s just one missed assignment or one missed tackle away from a real big play.”

Neither team has any major injuries though Holmen said a flu outbreak coupled with the 90-degree heat has limited practice time for some starters.

“To be honest with you here, I felt better about things four days ago,” Holmen said Wednesday. “This heat has really changed things and I don’t think we’ve accomplished near what we thought we were gonna the last three days of practice. And so we’re gonna find out a lot about our team in terms of conditioning and about handling circumstances like the weather.”

The temperature is expected to be about 80 degrees at kickoff.

Tim Chapman covers Minot High School athletics. Follow him on Twitter @chapmatp.