MAHNOMEN – The Mahnomen-Waubun football team has set the bar for what it takes to win a Section 8A championship.

After falling to Ada-Borup-West 33-12 in week four of the 2021 regular season, the Thunderbirds avenged the loss in the 8A title game by a score of 30-7. Under head coach John Clark Jr., Mahnomen-Waubun's ability to make adjustments throughout the season has made them a routinely tough out in the postseason.

1 Mahnomen-Waubun AD7C8942.JPG

The Mahnomen-Waubun practices on Aug. 25, 2022 at Mahnomen High School during the second week of fall camp.
Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune

"They expect that, and they know that," Clark said of the Thunderbirds playing with a target on their backs. "One thing we had in our favor was we got our butts kicked early in the year last year by Ada, and they didn't like that. Coaches have to be psychologists sometimes. We remind them quite often that we took a really good beating last year, and it took a lot of hard work and improvement to get where we wanted to be. I think this group understands that right now, and they're working on that each and every day."

Mahnomen-Waubun went 9-2 a year ago, including a 7-1 regular-season record. After winning the Class A state championship in 2018, the Thunderbirds returned to state for the first time only to lose to Minneota, the eventual runner-up.

Mahnomen-Waubun saw a large group of seniors, including Tanner Pazdernik, Justin Littlewolf and Will Starkey. However, the Thunderbirds view this season as a chance to flex their program's depth.


1 Mahnomen-Waubun AD7C8992.JPG

The Mahnomen-Waubun practices on Aug. 25, 2022 at Mahnomen High School during the second week of fall camp.
Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune

"It starts with developing depth each and every year," Clark said. "That's one thing we've been fortunate enough to do with this team. It's not such a big hit when you lose a senior class. We have an offensive line that has three or four kids that have started for three years. I don't expect us to take a big step back. Obviously, we lost some tremendous players that you don't really replace, but I think our depth and the determination of new seniors will really carry us."

"When you watch our practice, we do a good job of making sure these kids get reps in the case that a starter does go down. We have four sets of kids always getting reps. That's something, as a coaching staff, that we really try to develop in practice so that kids can step up when asked."

One of the seniors stepping into a new role is Dennis Ashley, who's expected to take the snaps under center at the quarterback position. Ashley played most of his offensive minutes as a running back last fall.

1 Dennis Ashley John Clark Jr. AD7C8949.JPG

Mahnomen-Waubun’s Dennis Ashley, left, and head coach John Clark Jr. discuss a play at a Thunderbirds’ practice on Aug. 25, 2022 at Mahnomen High School.
Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune

"Expectations are sky high here every year," Clark said. "We have a strong senior class. They want to take it a step further. They know what their goals are, and they're working hard to get there. They're excited, but it's a case of tempering that excitement and taking it one step at a time. We're not looking too far ahead."

Clark feels confident in how the offense looks through two weeks of fall camp. Defensively, he understands this season will be a learning curve.

"We graduated more off our defense, so the defense will be a work in progress for us," Clark said. "We have the players. It's just a matter of putting the puzzle together of which 11 kids are the best in each spot. We have some beef up front, but our linebackers and secondary are smaller kids. We're going to be on the lighter side on the back end, so, hopefully, we can take care of it on the front end."

Mahnomen-Waubun has about 40 kids out for football this fall, with some of them being first-timers.

1 Mahnomen-Waubun AD7C9009.JPG

The Mahnomen-Waubun practices on Aug. 25, 2022 at Mahnomen High School during the second week of fall camp.
Jared Rubado / Detroit Lakes Tribune

"It's neat because you get seniors who have never played football and want to try it because they hear how fun it is," Clark said. "That means kids are talking, and that's a credit to the kids. Hopefully, that continues. Football is a numbers game. The more bodies you have, the better off you're going to be. We're sitting good right now."


The Thunderbirds won't waste any time playing one of the top teams in the section. Polk County West makes the trip to Mahnomen High School on Sept. 1 in a rematch of last year's Section 8A semifinal. Mahnomen-Waubun will also take host Ada-Borup-West on Sept. 24 and the defending Section 6A champions, New York Mills, on Oct. 19.

"I expect it to be very similar to last year," Clark said. "It seems like there are three teams that are separated, but you never know. You always have some surprise teams. But I expect the usual suspects to be right there at the end. Each team is a little different. Polk County West lost all of their skill people, but they brought their line back. Ada-Borup lost most of their line but brought a lot of skill people back. We are kind of a mishmash of the two. It's going to be competitive."


Sept. 1 vs. Polk County West, 6 p.m.

Sept. 9 at Lake Park-Audubon, 7 p.m.

Sept. 15 at Warroad, 6 p.m.

Sept. 23 vs. Ada-Borup-West, 7 p.m.

Sept. 30 at Red Lake County, 7 p.m.

Oct. 7 vs Fosston, 7 p.m.

Oct. 14 at Menahga, 7 p.m.

Oct. 19 vs. New York Mills, 7 p.m.