MANKATO – Minnesota State Mankato will be playing its 18th home playoff game with Todd Hoffner as its coach on Saturday. The opponent in the opening round of the 28-team bracket will be Wayne State, a Northern Sun rival that defeated the Mavericks two months ago.

"We won the South and Bemidji State won the North, and it is hosting Winona State,'' Hoffner said. "I feel like playing conference teams in the first round can take away the feeling of being in the national tournament for the players, but …

"Division II is trying to cut down on teams taking flights. That's obvious.''

Hoffner returned as the Mavericks coach in 2014, and this will be the sixth appearance since then in the playoffs. They missed in 2016, there was no season in 2020, and then there was a true outlier to Minnesota State's football excellence: a 6-5 finish in 2021.

"It was one of those years … quite a few key injuries and we lost most of the close ones,'' he said.

This season started with good wins over Bemidji State and Minnesota Duluth, but then came losses to Northern State and Wayne State, and a three-point win at home over usually overmatched Mary.

I've covered a number of Mavericks playoff games in the past decade. You came to expect there would be a home game in the second round at the end of November, and perhaps a quarterfinal here on the upper campus in early December.

You came to expect hanging out in Jonny B's with the faithful until 10 minutes before kickoff, then trudging over to Blakeslee, America's coldest stadium, and saying to yourself: "How can they play in this cold wind?''

Then came 6-and-5 in 2021, the shaky start to 2022 and this curiosity from a distance: What's going on with Mavs football?

Hoffner said in his office this week: "Our mantra has been, '1-0,' meaning, don't look beyond winning the next game. In 2019, we made it to the national championship game, and beat some excellent teams to get there, before we lost [48-40] in a shootout with West Florida.

"Then came COVID, and when we came back, there was talk about, 'Can we get back to the national championship and win it this time?' I think a lot of people forgot about '1-0.' ''

The 2022 Mavericks made the long trip home from the 41-33 loss to Wayne State on Oct. 8. This was followed by a session in the team's meeting room.

"We talked about faith in one another, about trust, about belief in teammates,'' Hoffner said. "There were opinions offered.''

So everyone had a say? "I did most of the talking,'' Hoffner answered.

The Mavericks went 1-0 five times the rest of the way, including large wins on consecutive Saturdays in Sioux Falls — first, Augustana, then the University of Sioux Falls.

So, it's back to frozen Blakeslee for another playoff game on Saturday.

"The 'real feel' temperature forecast is for plus-9,'' Hoffner said. "That would make it our coldest playoff game yet. Did you know that Blakeslee is 60 years old this year? Sixty.''

I shook my head and said: "With several hundred dollars of improvements in that time. But don't worry. Any day now [Vikings owner] Zygi Wilf will be authorizing the $10 million check the organization should have written to Mankato's athletic department in 2018, for hosting and sacrificing the campus for 52 years of Vikings training camps.''

That was worth a skeptical smile from Hoffner.

* * *

We talked for a while longer and then I asked: "How's your family holding up?''

The question required no further details. The Hoffner family that had gone through so much a decade earlier when Todd lost the Minnesota State coaching job for two years, based on accusations and moronic assumptions from administrators and bureaucrats when two short videos were found on his cellphone showing his naked young kids dancing after a bath, has been surviving much worse since May 2, 2021.

That was the late Sunday afternoon when youngest child Mara, 13, described as the family's shining light, died by suicide.

"We are doing our best,'' Hoffner said. "Mel is an amazing person. Our older kids, Kiaya and Brady, are in college — Kiaya here, Brady at Eau Claire — doing well.''

Mel is Melodee, the mother of the family, the former school counselor, now working with others in the community on "suicide avoidance" in young people.

Mel and Kiaya were very forthcoming on Mara with reporter Dana Melius for an in-depth piece that ran in the Mankato Free Press in early September.

This week, as plans were being made for the Mavericks' return to the playoffs, Hoffner said:

"My experience is that it just hits you at the most unusual times. You're in the middle of something, busy, and then there's Mara … taking over your thoughts.''

Hoffner paused. "Forever 13,'' he said. "That's our little girl.''

. . .


Where to find help: Families can find mental health information and resources for crisis care on NAMI Minnesota's website, you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, call the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a Crisis Text Line counselor.