It's been nearly nine months since the Minot High football team lost to Fargo South in the Class AAA state semifinals to end its 2013 campaign. Now, the Magicians' 2014 season is just hours away.
With all the waiting leading up to today's 8 p.m. kickoff, a 4-hour, 265-mile bus trip doesn't seem like much time at all. But a much-improved West Fargo squad awaits at the end of that bus trip, and Minot coach Barry Holmen expects a much closer game than the 27-0 victory last year in Minot.
"I don't think it will be a 27-0 game," he said. "I really don't. West Fargo has a lot of those same kids back and they showed tremendous improvement over the course of last season. They beat Fargo South - the eventual state champion - in the regular season. We know we're going to have as good a competition as we're going to find in these first two games. We're going to match up with a quality opponent and we're going to learn a lot about ourselves."
Minot High junior Ben Bolinske got his first taste of varsity experience last year against West Fargo. He’ll start under center in the Magicians’ season-opener against the host Packers.
The Packers struggled to open last season, losing their first two games to Minot and Bismarck by a combined 44 points. They rattled off four straight victories after the 0-2 start, which included a 14-7 victory over Fargo South, the Bruins' lone East Region loss. West Fargo advanced to the playoffs as the No. 4 seed before losing to Bismarck in the quarterfinals.
The Packers' roster boasts 19 seniors, including quarterback Jacob Hoy and running back Sam Olsen. Hoy split time under center as well as in the backfield and as a wide receiver. He accounted for 376 total yards and two touchdowns. Olsen rushed for 352 yards and eight touchdowns on 72 carries.
"They're a good team," Minot wide receiver Sean Doerr said. "We played them last year. They have a good offense this year, but we're looking good and we're fired up for our first game. We can't just lay down for them. We have to play our game."
Less than a week removed from participating in Minot State Scrimmage Day, the Magicians have been fine-tuning the areas that need the most improvement. Among those is the physicality in the trenches.
"The scrimmage really told the tale that we need to get more physical up front," Holmen said. "That was very clear. If we have any hope of being a top-tier team, we have to improve drastically in the trenches. We anticipate that we'll be pretty good on the defensive side and we have so many question marks offensively that we're going to find some things out."
Said outside linebacker Dalton Mitzel: "They're going to be physical. We have to win at the line of scrimmage. Our O-line the first game of the scrimmage wasn't very physical, but I think we have that sorted out. We're just trying to keep that physicality up and beat them off the ball right away."
West Fargo's defensive line won't make it easy for Minot. After surrendering 27 points to the Magicians last year and 31 to Bismarck the following week, the Packers allowed 16.4 points in their final seven contests.
Their backfield consists of two returning starters in senior defensive backs Brady Heiser and Isaiah Helland-Davis. Heiser and Helland-Davis accounted for 62 tackles and three interceptions. All-region linebacker Zach Larson returns for his senior season after recording 73 tackles and two interceptions last year.
"They are very good defensively," Holmen said. "They return so much of their linebacking core. I don't think anything is going to come easy on the offensive side. We're going to have to try to throw the ball and we're going to have to have some kind of running game and be balanced or we're going to struggle all night."
Junior quarterback Ben Bolinske, whose first taste of varsity experience came against the Packers last season, will be the starting signal-caller for the Magicians. Bolinske will be surrounded by a bevy of new talent at the skill positions not present the last time the two teams met.
While the non-conference game means nothing in the region standings, it'll still serve a purpose for Minot.
"We have plenty of question marks," Holmen said. "Whether we're 1-0 or 0-1 at the end of this week, what really matters is that we improve."
Mike Kraft covers Minot High athletics and general assignments. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft24_MDN.