John’s Journal: Football Means Tradition At Moose Lake-Willow River
Rebels’ Story Includes One-Of-A-Kind Field And Years Of Success
Posted: Thursday, October 6, 2022 - 9:41 AM
WILLOW RIVER -- When a new school in Moose Lake was being planned a few years back, a question was raised: Should we also build a new football field next to the new school, a shiny and modern place to play?
The answer was resounding: No flippin’ way.
That’s because for about as long as anyone can remember, the Moose Lake-Willow River Rebels have been playing football on a spectacular throwback field tucked into a neighborhood on the edge of Willow River, surrounded by pine trees and bathed in tradition and success.
The team practices in Moose Lake but game nights are the big draw 11 miles away in Willow River. The two small communities south of Duluth, just off Interstate 35, have their own schools, which have come together to form cooperative sports teams since 1984.
The Rebels football team has been one of the state’s best for a long time. They have played in 15 state tournaments since 2000, including Class 2A state runner-up finishes in 2009, 2011 and 2012.
A 43-14 Homecoming win over Mesabi East last week pushed the Rebels’ record to 4-1. The loss came in the season opener against Class 4A Hermantown. Moose Lake-Willow River plays at Braham this Friday.
Dave Louzek, who is in his 24th year as head coach of the Rebels, said success was not a sure thing in the early days.
“We really struggled to get numbers out for football, especially from Willow River,” he said. “Our numbers were way down and morale was a little bit low. We were able to build up numbers to having 65 or 70 kids come out for football and from there it’s built a lot of fun into the program. And it's just taken off since then. The kids are having fun out here and that's kind of the key to playing well.”
During halftime of the Homecoming game, previous Rebels football players were recognized as they stood on the field, representing the program’s tradition. Another tradition takes place before home games, when the Rebels silently walk the one block between the Willow River school and the football field. It’s quite a scene: the Rebels, in single file, cleats clacking on the edge of a narrow asphalt street, with red and blue banners hanging from telephone poles and bearing the Rebels’ “R.”
Louzek loves his team’s home field and said it can be even more spectacular on foggy nights.
“Every once in a while you'll get a night where the fog comes rolling in. And with the pine trees, the lights and the stands are full, it’s great.”
The field is special in other ways, too. All the fans who want to sit in bleachers do so on the home side of the field; lots of folks stand around the perimeter of the field (with the option of stepping back into the pines to take important phone calls). There are press boxes on each side of the field. And there is no track, which allows everybody to be extremely close to the action.
“That's the best part of this field, there's no track separating the fans from the game,” said Louzek. “The fans are literally right on top of you, right on top of the field and they see everything that we're doing coaching-wise, and I love having them right there. They see how we treat the kids, and we treat them well and get them to work hard for us. I love that everybody is part of the experience.”
Indeed, during the second half of the Homecoming game, with reserves on the field, a mom leaned over the front of the metal bleachers and asked several first-string players to gather together on the sideline as she snapped a photo.
The Rebels of 2022 are a talented group, led by a rough-and-tumble ground game and a quick-to-the-ball defense. They average 313 rushing yards per game, led by Jaxsyn Schmidt’s 150-yards-per-game average and eight total touchdowns in five games. The Rebels have scored 19 rushing touchdowns and the defense has yielded only four grounds TDs.
“It's definitely a work in progress,” Louzek said of this season. “But we always expect to compete for a section championship. We expect to get into the state tournament. We graduated a great group of seniors last year, just like we do every year. But we never talk about rebuilding, we always talk about reloading.
“And now it's this group's turn, and you saw the former Rebel players out there (at halftime). They played in Prep Bowls, they played in state semifinals, they played in state quarterfinals. And these kids know it because we talk about it. And so they have to live up to that legacy. And most of all, now, it's their turn. This year is their turn to leave their part of the legacy.”
--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at email@example.com