2012 Fall Preview: New Life football team stepping up
New Life Academy head football coach Paul Mork will enter his 54th year of coaching football this fall as the Eagles enter their second season in the Tri-Metro Conference.
Starting a football program from scratch is not an easy task at any level, and for long time coach-of-everything Paul Mork, every maturing step is a good sign.
"Football is a game of numbers," said Mork, who was inducted into the Minnesota High School Coaching Hall of Fame in 2002. "We've seen our number of players grow, and it's a good sign."
Mork began coaching football in 1959. Since then, he's coached everything from cross-country to girls basketball in a list of cities that is just as impressive as the sports he's coached.
This year, Mork said he's expecting New Life Academy's cooperative football team, mixed with St. Croix Prep and Bethany Academy, to improve upon last year's 3-6 record. To do so, the program will have to step up its level of competition to meet its peers.
"We're in a great football conference from top to bottom," Mork said. "We're aiming to be competitive."
At the end of their season last year, New Life bid farewell to 11 seniors, including co-captains Max Matilla, Cody Linton, Jordan Nieuwsma and Dan Lemay -- as well as to senior wide receivers Alex Heiser and Hayden Larson and quarterback Robert Grissom.
To help fill the void, Mork said he is hoping a strong commitment from the team's senior leaders will be able to help progress its young talent along. He also said his team is returning a large number of offensive and defensive linemen.
"We have a lot of linemen, both offense and defense, returning, which is a great thing," he said. "You don't usually see that -- it's usually seen at the other positions, so that will be a strength for our team."
In addition to the offensive and defensive lines, Mork said he believes his running backs and receivers will be a team strength.
Key players returning to the Eagles this season include: Matt Michaud, Cameron Mehls, Luke Mikhail, Sam Dufault, Mark deLeon, Nolan Johnson, Jacob Salkowicz, Matt Etzweiler, Jonathan Edwards and Jake Wynia. Promising newcomers include: Ed Blair, Jacob Jones, Jared Ture, Blake Anders, Weston Berg, Jake Brand and Elliott Larson.
Last year, the Eagles entered the Tri-Metro Conference, which was a big step up in the ranks of high school athletics. After a 3-6 record and a loss to Concordia Academy in the Section 4AAA playoff game, Eagles senior running back Matt Michaud said he is hoping the team will rise to the competition.
Defending state champion St. Croix Lutheran, Providence Academy and St. Anthony are expected to be the teams to beat in the Tri-Metro this fall.
"It's a great conference - two teams made it to state last year and one team won it," Michaud said. "So we know it's no walk in the park. Like coach Mork tells us, we're not playing the sisters of the poor anymore."
After joining the Tri-Metro last year, New Life is making another leap this year. The Eagles are now in Section 4AAAA, with bigger schools like Hill-Murray and South St. Paul believed to be the favorites.
Michaud, who plays running back and middle linebacker, has been playing varsity football since the program began five years ago. He's been able to see the progression of the program from humble beginnings with barely enough players to field a team to increased interest and legitimacy.
"When we first started we didn't have a foundation," he said. "Looking back, we've got a story now. We're not just a new program -- we're a team."
The numbers game was always a challenge for Mork and his team. That changed two years ago when they formed a cooperative with St. Croix Prep and Bethany Academy.
"We're still the smallest school in the division, so the co-op was a great thing for us. As the season goes, players get nicked up and tired," Mork said. "You need numbers."
He said his team is now made up of about 45 percent NLA students, 45 percent St. Croix Prep students, and 10 percent from Bethany Academy, and though the team may not all be at the same school together on a day to day basis, Michaud said it hasn't affected the team's chemistry.
"You don't even notice it," Michaud said. "We sweat the same and bleed the same. We're just brothers who don't see each other every day."
The Eagles' season opener is at home against Breck on Friday, Aug. 31.