Bethel football coach Steve Johnson wasn't sure how Logan Flannery would handle being the successor to All-America running back Phil Porta, who finished his career as the MIAC's all-time leading rusher.
Johnson watched Flannery in high school and knew he had talent. But Flannery has exceeded everyone's expectations in helping Bethel win a school-record 11 consecutive games to reach Saturday's quarterfinal game at Central (Iowa) College in the NCAA Division III playoffs.
"I knew Logan was good," Johnson said. "I'm not sure I thought he was this good."
Then again, Flannery beat cancer as a high school senior, so following in the footsteps of a star player is a walk in the park.
Flannery was the only player in the MIAC to rush for 1,000 yards this season, and he was the only freshman named first-team all-conference.
Flannery leads the conference in carries (252) and rushing yards (1,152) and is third in rushing touchdowns (13).
His success hasn't made Bethel fans forget about Porta, but he at least has softened the blow of his departure.
"I don't see it so much as replacing him," Flannery said. "He was the leading rusher in the MIAC. I'm just trying to make it not much of a drop-off."
Bethel wasn't Flannery's first choice of schools. Diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma, a rare form of cancer, before his senior year at Lakeville South, Flannery recovered so quickly that a strong senior season resulted in a handful of offers from Division II schools.
Flannery, who helped lead Lakeville South to the Class 5A championship game last season, wanted to play football at the highest level possible, but none of the Division II schools was an ideal fit. At the urging of his father, Flannery checked out Bethel, which does not offer athletic scholarships but provided an opportunity to make an immediate impact in a run-oriented offense.
"I just said, 'Hey, a scholarship is a scholarship,' " Flannery said. "It was a pride thing. I just realized that a scholarship is not everything. I'm not going to the NFL. I wanted to make the most of my four years."
He's off to a good start. In his third college game, he rushed for 93 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries and caught three passes for 98 yards and a touchdown in a triple-overtime victory against Concordia (Moorhead). He has been a key cog in the offense ever since.
"I don't think any of us thought I would make this big of an impact my freshman year," he said.
Flannery (6-0, 190 pounds) has decent size and speed, but Johnson said his vision and ability to shed tacklers elevate his game.
"He's the real deal," Johnson said. "He's a tough kid. I don't think cancer made him a tough kid. But when he got that, it was an opportunity for him to be tough."
Flannery prefers to keep the focus on football and not the struggles he conquered to reach this point. He also is quick to credit quarterback and conference MVP Ben Wetzell, his offensive line and senior backup tailback Jared Bangs, who has acted as his mentor.
"We knew we had a chance to be one of the top teams in the country," Flannery said.
Even without the MIAC's all-time leading rusher.