Mahnomen-Waubun has a lot coming back from undefeated team

Thunderbirds have 8 starters back on both offense, defense from last year's 5-0 team.

Mahnomen-Waubun quarterback Tanner Pazdernik attempts to elude Frazee's George Flynn (4) and Jack Hall (22) during the first half of a close, overtime victory for the Thunderbirds Thursday night. Robert Williams / Tribune

MAHNOMEN — Mahnomen High School played in 13 state football championship games and made 26 state playoff appearances from 1974-2017. Waubun played in the 9-man state championship game in 2007 and made four state playoff appearances from 1990-2016.

When the two programs combined in 2018, Mahnomen-Waubun won the Class A state title in 2018.

Coming off a season in which the Thunderbirds were 5-0, it is safe to say that expectations are high for a team that has eight returning starters on both offense and defense this fall.

"In this area, there's always high expectations," said John Clark, who is beginning his 21st season as head coach. "Knowing the offensive line is coming back and our quarterback is back, they're really high. These kids are pretty athletic kids and the basketball team has been pretty successful.

"There's always expectations and optimism, especially with how things got short last year (with the pandemic)."


Justin Littlewolf (Junior, guard), Braylen Heisler (Jr., C), Will Starkey (Sr., OG/OT), Brock Spalla (Jr., OT), Kasey Wadena (Jr., OT/OG) and Will Olson (Sr., TE) all have starting experience returning on the line. Starkey is coming back from a knee injury he suffered in basketball and the hope is that he will be able to play by midseason. Starkey, who could also see time at fullback, and Littlewolf have both been varsity starters since the eighth grade.

"Our offensive line will be our strength, no doubt about it," Clark said. "We're only missing one tight end from last year and we have some kids who can add some depth as well. A couple of fifth-year (line) starters — I don't think a lot of Class A teams have that."

Tanner Pazdernik (Sr., QB), Dennis Ashley (Jr., RB) and Curt Bellefuille (Jr., RB) are the skill players returning to Mahnomen-Waubun's triple option offense. Pazdernik, who is beginning his third season as a starter, led the team in rushing (118 carries for 626 yards, 8 TDs) and completed 15 of 31 passes for 274 yards and five TDs last year. Ashley (60 carries, 362 yards, 3 TDs, 4 receptions, 72 yards), Bellefuille (14 carries, 36 yards) and Starkey (9 carries, 35 yards, 1 TD) are the other top returning rushers.

Defensively, Pazdernik (5 solo tackles, 7 tackle assists) returns at end, Littlewolf (9 solos, 6 assists, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1 fumble recovery), Spalla (6 solos, 4 assists, 2 sacks) and Wadena (3 solos, 1 assist) return on the line. Littlewolf, who is 6-foot-3 and 290 pounds, is getting recruiting interest from NCAA Division II football programs.

Starkey (15 solos, 12 assists, 7.5 for loss, 1 fumble recovery), Olson (15 solos, 10 assists, 4.5 for loss, 1 pass breakup, 1 interception) and Bellefuille (6 solos, 6 assists, 1 fumble recovery) return at linebacker. Ashley (6 solo tackles, 1 fumble recovery, 1 interception) returns at safety and also has experience returning kickoffs and punts.

"We're concerned because we have kids playing both ways and we have some inexperience at key spots," Clark said of his defense. "We may need to rest some of those starters and we need to build depth."

The Thunderbirds averaged 30 points and gave up an average of 9.8 points last fall.

In Section 8A, Clark said that he expects Polk County West to be a strong contender.


"Ada-Borup and Red Lake County are two sleepers who could be upset candidates," he said. "We should be right there at the top."

Mahnomen-Waubun has 11 seniors, eight juniors, 14 sophomores and 17 freshmen on its roster.

Mahnomen-Waubun schedule

All games at 7 p.m.

Thursday, Sept. 2, at Fosston\u0009

Friday, Sept. 10, home vs Lake Park-Audubon

Friday, Sept. 17, home vs. Warroad

Friday, Sept. 24, at Ada-Borup

Friday, Oct. 1, at Walker-Hackensack-Akeley

Friday, Oct. 8, home vs Red Lake County Central

Friday, Oct. 15, home vs. Wadena-Deer Creek

Wednesday, Oct. 20, at Menahga

Brock Barlund (15) and Dennis Ashley (11) square off on a completed pass in the flat during Thursday night's game between Mahnomen-Waubun and Frazee. Robert Williams / Tribune

Mick Hatten is a reporter and editor for Forum News Service and helps manage, a website dedicated to hockey. He began working for Forum Communications in November 2018 and has covered St. Cloud State University hockey since 2010. A graduate of St. Cloud State, he has more than 30 years of experience as a journalist and has been a youth hockey coach since 2014.

For more coverage of St. Cloud and the surrounding communities, check out St. Cloud Live.
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