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State football playoffs - Thunderbirds' dynamic duo backed by stifling defense

Quarterback Jon Starkey gets into open space behind the blocking of Chris Podlak (54), Jeffrey Cukla (52) and John Clark (72) during the section semifinal victory over Fertile-Beltrami Saturday, Oct. 27 in Mahnomen. Robert Williams /Tribune

One look at the Section 8A championship game box score is enough of a scouting report on the Mahnomen-Waubun Thunderbirds for first round opponents Deer River.

While the Thunderbirds have plenty of talent on both sides of the ball, when it comes to a key to Mahnomen-Waubun’s success, it’s centered around two seniors.

Jon Starkey and Parker Syverson both line up under center and combined for all five Thunderbird trips to the end zone of a 35-20 victory over Polk County West to capture a ninth consecutive 8A title.

The prior eight championships belong to Mahnomen before the co-op of both schools but Syverson and the former Waubun Bombers have gone deeper into the playoffs over the past three seasons. The Bombers made a trip to U.S. Bank Stadium in 2016-17 reaching the 9-man semifinals in a 12-1 campaign.

Prior to the co-op, Mahnomen had been eliminated in the state quarterfinals four straight years after winning back-to-back state titles in 2012 and 2013. Getting back to Minneapolis starts Saturday, Nov. 10 at noon against the Deer River Warriors (8-2) at Brainerd high school.

“We just have to take care of our jobs in practice and get better every day and hopefully, we can come out with a win Saturday,” said Syverson.


The Thunderbirds walloped Polk County West during the regular season 34-0 but got a needed test in the section final at Fargodome from the Thunder. Starkey took away a healthy lesson from that victory.

“That we’re beatable; that was a good wake up call for us in the second half,” he said. “You really have to finish games, especially in the state tournament.”

With a roster nearly doubled in size thanks to the co-op, the Thunderbirds enter the state playoffs in a situation unfamiliar to both teams. As individual teams, both clubs were always playing this time of year one or two injuries away from disaster.

“Our bodies are definitely better,” Starkey said. “We’re a lot more healthy and we have a lot of weapons.”

Syverson and Starkey have both rushed for more than 1,000 yards this season and combined for 29 touchdowns. The duo also has Izaiah Asher, Tayvis Zima and Jayden Heisler to take the full load off in the backfield.

Syverson, Zima and Treston Spalla are primary targets for Starkey in the event the Thunderbirds are forced to pass. That has not been the case through 10 undefeated games where the defense has only allowed 61 points.

“We take pride in our defense,” said Syverson. “I don’t think it’s something where we can come into the game thinking that we’re just going to win but we definitely take pride in our defense.”


Asher, a senior, leads the defense with 23 solo tackles and 15 assists, followed by seniors Chandler Toczek (16-18), Jeffrey Cukla (17-13), Will Bly (147-7) and Syverson (16-9). Bly and Syverson have combined for 10 interceptions, seven by Syverson.

Not giving the ball up is a crucial point of emphasis for Starkey and his crew of running backs.

“Definitely ball security, it’s going to be cold and turnovers are a big thing in the playoffs,” he said. “We just have to take care of the ball and we should be fine.”

The weather is less than an issue for the Thunderbirds and something the team has used to emphasize the enjoyment of still playing at this time of the season. Players were laughing and headbutting large chunks of snow with their helmets prior to practice Wednesday in Mahnomen.

“We just have fun either way,” said Starkey. “The most important part is we have fun as a team, especially on defense.”

For the 16 seniors, a number neither club came close to prior to the co-op, Saturday’s quarterfinal is another step in chasing a first-ever state title for the co-op and something they are not taking lightly but taking with appreciation.

“It’s exciting,” said Syverson “I’m just trying to enjoy every second that we have out here together and continue to have fun. It’s an experience we will never forget. We definitely have to come ready to play. We can’t just expect to win right out of the gates. We have to bring everything we’ve got.”

Deer River’s defenders will get everything the Thunderbirds have trying to contain a running game that as outrushed opponents 3,748 yards to 448. The Mahnomen-Waubun offense averages more than 400 yards per game and has limited opponents to less than 150 per contest.

The Warriors enter the game on an seven-game winning streak after starting the season 1-2 led by quarterback Noah Williams and running backs Austin Rasley and Trevor Michienzi.

Robert Williams

Sports Editor at the Detroit Lakes Tribune. Williams worked prior as the Sports Editor in Perham for the Focus, a Forum Communications newspaper, from 2010-14. 

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