Story written by Jack Hittinger of the Bemidji Pioneer
BEMIDJI, MN -
Anticipation for the debut of Bemidji's first-ever professional sports f
ranchise has reached its apex.
The Bemidji Axemen introduce the Indoor Football League to northern Minnesota Friday, making their debut in an exhibition game at the Sanford Center.
And if there's one consensus among the franchise it's this: It's a developmental league and players are aiming to reach the next level, but they're here for the fans.
"Ideally, we want to win as many games as we can here for the city of Bemidji," Axemen head coach Robert Fuller said during a recent practice at Bemidji State's John Glas Fieldhouse. "And all of these guys have the aspiration to a higher level football. And that's how we see our program. It's going to be a fast-paced, fan friendly, electric environment."
"A lot of stuff we do is to provide a show," Axemen quarterback Hunter Wanket added. "This league is about the fans, the experience."
The Axemen take on the Cedar Rapids Titans at 7:05 p.m. Friday. It's technically an exhibition game -- the Axemen are still running through training camp at BSU -- but don't expect anything less than a high-flying, competitive contest, according to Fuller.
"Guys are going to be fighting for spots on the roster and playing time," he said. "We've only had a couple days of practice and we all want to get out there and play."
Fuller has coached off-and-on in the IFL for about eight years and has had stints coaching at the University of Mary, BSU's Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference rival.
Starting this Axmen program from scratch drew him to the job and he said he was already encouraged by how the team has gelled in the first week of practice.
"Our expectation offensively is we're always going to strive for balance between the run and pass," he said. "We want to be efficient and physical on defense."
With a pair of dual-threat quarterbacks in Wanket and Josh Aakre, as well as a solid backfield plus a veteran IFL receiving corps, the Axemen are confident that their offense will be up to snuff right away.
"We're real fast and have lots of speed, so we're going to have to utilize that speed," Wanket said. "We have two great running backs with a good O-line. Both quarterbacks can run, too, so it should add a good dynamic."
The Axemen have been recruited from all over the country and at all levels of football -- Wanket played FCS football at Central Connecticut State while defensive lineman Montez Robinson played at Georgia and two players on the roster played at NCAA Division III Bethel University of the MIAC.
There are a few NSIC players on the roster -- including all-American BSU kicker Zach Pulkinen -- and Fuller said he'd like to add a few more if he can.
"Our desire is to get as many NSIC kids as we can on our roster," he said. "It doesn't always work out that way, but we want to get Minnesota kids on our football team."
Pulkinen won't be kicking with the team now -- Fuller said he was practicing and working out with the Axemen now in preparation for some NFL camps later in the year -- but the door is open for him to play in Bemidji.
Axemen receiver Thomas Gordon, a one-year IFL veteran who has some experience playing in an NFL preseason game for the Kansas City Chiefs, said he's excited to prove something to the Bemidji community.
"It's a little different since you don't know what to expect out of fans, out of the organization," he said. "Mostly because it's new. We have to win games and bring something to Bemidji for the fans to come back, so we can stick around. But it's fun to set the standard... we want to make a playoff run and make some history."
Although the Sioux Falls Storm is the three-time defending United Bowl champion Fuller sees a lot of parity this year.
"Just looking at what everybody has back, I think it's going to be one of the most competitive seasons I've ever seen," he said.
So what should fans expect Friday?
A party, says Wanket.
"We want fans to have a great time," he said. "We want players to interact with fans... Don't be afraid to interact with us. When we score we want to be able to jump in the crowd. We want fans to get loud and heckle the other team. We want it to be fun."
"We want to show people what the indoor game is all about," Gordon added. "Let them see how we bring the outside game to the indoor game.... just show people it's not play-around football. It's real football, it's just indoors."
Although the Axemen recruit nationally, with players from Division I all the way down to junior college in the roster -- BSU football fans should recognize a few players from the NSIC. This includes BSU kicker/punter Zach Pulkinen, who won't be playing with the team right now but has been working out with them. The team also has a few players from smaller Minnesota colleges. Here's a list of players area fans might recognize:
Zach Pulkinen -- K/P, BSU
Warren Matthews Jr. -- RB, Southwest Minnesota State
Josh Murray -- RB, University of Mary
Nicholas Thorton-Jack -- OL, University of Mary
Josh Powell -- K/P, St. Olaf
Joshua Aakre -- QB, Bethel
Cory Svihla -- LB, Bethel
Joshua Whitebird -- OL, Itasca Community College