The expectations for first-year teams are relatively low - grow as a team, work out the wrinkles in the game plan, win a few games.
Self-imposed expectations for the Brainerd Lumberjacks, on the other hand, have always been high - win the Semi Pro Football League Championship.
At the start of the season such goals may have seemed lofty considering the difficulty of building a championship team from the ground up in less than three months.
Two-and-a-half months after the Lumberjacks kicked off their season that goal is within reach as they have amassed a 6-3 record and will host the SPFL championship game Saturday night at Harvey Shew Field in Brainerd.
After cruising to a 31-6 win over the Northern Terror in the opening round of the playoffs, the Lumberjacks demolished the Minneapolis Maulers 61-20 last Saturday, setting up an anticipated rematch against the Duluth-Superior Shoremen for the championship.
The Shoremen, however, have been disqualified from the playoffs because of a non-sanctioned game July 11 against the Terror.
Brainerd Lumberjacks vs. Minnesota Phoenix
What: Semi-Pro Football League championship
When: Saturday 6 p.m.
Where: Harvey Shew Field behind Franklin Art Center, Brainerd,
Radio: Game will be broadcast on 660-AM Radio
With the Shoremen out of the picture, the Lumberjacks will face off against the Minnesota Phoenix of the Northern Elite Football League.
The Lumberjacks and Phoenix will play a physical, smash-mouth brand of football at Shew Field, which has drawn the league's largest crowds.
Built around the ability to stop the run, the Lumberjacks' trademark defense will be put to the test as they face an offensive line with an average weight of 312 pounds.
See LUMBERJACKS, Page 3B
"They've got a big offensive line and they try to pound it," Lumberjacks coach J.J. Kern said. "That's where the game will be won or lost - our ability to stop their rush."
Kern likes the matchup, however, as the Lumberjacks have been successful stopping the running game all season. Brainerd has held opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing in five of six home games this season, including two games where opponents had fewer than 50 yards.
The Lumberjacks' offensive play-makers will also be put to the test as they line up against a hard-nosed Phoenix defense. Anchored by the strong linebacker play of Ross Seifert, who averages 8.6 tackles a contest, Dan Kensinger with 6.9 and Nate Sevola with 5.6, the Phoenix are a solid defensive unit.
"Defense is their strength," Kern said. "They're a really good defensive team."
In what will be fans' final chance to watch the Lumberjacks in 2009, the true battle will be won in the trenches.
"Our offensive line will be the key to the game," Kern said. "If our offensive line plays like it did last week and gives us time, we'll be successful."
In last week's win over the Maulers, the Lumberjacks' offensive line was flawless as it didn't surrender a sack and gave quarterback Karson Pike the time he needed to make big plays, resulting in 302 passing and 106 rushing yards.
After suffering many injuries throughout the season, the Lumberjacks expect to have a fully rested and healthy roster for the championship game. Exceptions will be starting running back Shawn "Crazy Legs" Nelson and defensive lineman Thomas Heck. Starting linebacker Mike Munsterteiger is probable with a sprained ankle.
"We got out of the last game with less injuries than we've probably had in any one game all year," Kern said, "so we're sitting pretty good."
Fans are invited to meet the Lumberjacks at 4 p.m. for autographs and pictures.
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