Todd Hoffner has been back in charge of Minnesota State Mankato football since the fall of 2014 and the results have been terrific. The Mavericks are 72-9 in six seasons, and 10-5 of that has come in the NCAA Division II playoffs.
There were bookend losses in national title games: 13-0 to Colorado State Pueblo in 2014 and 48-40 to West Florida in 2019.
Thus, the ultimate end-of-season disappointment in December has come in different forms, a slog and a shootout, but neither would compare to a 2020 season that ended in August without a game being played.
"I think it was late July that we were told that our reporting date was being pushed back to September, and a while later, we were told there wouldn't be a season,'' Jack Leius said. "What can you do? We all had to adjust.''
Leius was a rookie in the Northern Sun as a junior in 2019, a standout at the nickel position that is a hybrid corner/linebacker for the Mavericks and, yes, he's the son of former Twins infielder Scott Leius.
The adjustment for Jack Leius was to not re-enroll in graduate school for fall semester 2020, saving the classes he had left to get a master's degree for this spring semester, followed by more football over fall semester starting in August 2021.
The Mavericks had lost considerable talent from the 2019 national runners-up, including quarterback Ryan Schlichte and relentless running back Nate Gunn, yet they were ready to take another run at winning it all.
Then, the pandemic basically wiped out D-II football, with the Northern Sun eventually announcing there would be no official football competition for the 2020-21 school year.
"I think we were going to be really good again last fall,'' Leius said. "But the way we've been practicing lately in that new dome of ours … it's been awesome. We're getting better.''
MSU Mankato opened the Maverick All-Sports Dome, all 110,000 square feet, in December 2019. The cancellation of the 2020 season permitted more practices, and Hoffner's 82 players were completing 10 days of those workouts in the dome on Friday.
One player not in school for spring semester is JD Ekowa, the quarterback who split duty with Schlichte over three years that resulted in 40 wins.
"JD says he is coming back this fall,'' Hoffner said. "We'll see how that goes in the next few months. JD is a very bright person and sought after in the job market, I'm sure.''
All NCAA athletes have been given an extra year of eligibility because of the pandemic. Some Mavericks seniors from the fall of 2020, particularly those who were in their fifth year, have had a decision to make.
"The question becomes, 'When is it time to get on with the rest of your life?''' Hoffner said. "We support them either way."
The decision not to have a spring schedule in D-II or the Northern Sun did cause a few Mavericks to look around. Two defensive linemen, Michael Buetow and Braydon Thomas, wound up at North Dakota State, and both played in NDSU's opening victory of the Missouri Valley Football Conference's spring schedule over the weekend.
Hoffner had conversations with the Northern Sun about the possibility of spring games. The message remained no conference football schedule, and that any competition had to be arranged among schools.
"A number of conference schools said they weren't interested in playing, but now I'm hearing even some of those might try our model," Hoffner said. "I even have a name for it: the Upper Midwest Friendship League."
The Mavericks have come up with this:
Four scrimmages from March 20 to April 24, against Morningside and Grand View, two strong NAIA programs from Iowa, and then with conference rivals Southwest Minnesota State and Minnesota Duluth.
The scrimmages are followed by the piece de resistance: the Mavericks vs. Northern State in Aberdeen, S.D., on May 1.
"It will be a real game, going in the record books for both schools,'' Hoffner said. "What's interesting is we have our 11-game schedule for the fall, and the opener is against Northern State, so we're going to be playing back-to-back.''
The competition will help break in a bunch of new Mavericks starters, as well as a new offensive coordinator. North Dakota State used its bigger bucks and an FCS dynasty to hire away Joe Beschorner to be its quarterbacks coach.
Hoffner has promoted Colin Prosser to be the OC, and with the help of the administration, he was able to retain Jim Glogowski as the much-praised defensive coordinator.
"Montana State was trying to hire 'Glo,'" Hoffner said. "We've done well enough here that schools — including FCS schools — are coming after our coaches."
Hoffner was working on filling another staff opening last week, while looking ahead with great hope of pulling off the one-and-only spring of the Upper Midwest Friendship League.
"We have some hungry athletes," Hoffner said. "We want to give them a chance to lock horns with players other than themselves."
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