2011 Season Preview
A decade. Ten years. For most businesses, surviving a decade is cause for celebration. For sports teams, a decade at or near the top of the heap is rarefied
air, something seldom savored.

Unless, that is, you are the St. Paul Pioneers.

The Pioneers in the past decade have been five times league champions, one-time national runners up, 2009 National Champions – all since playing their first season in 2002. Rare air, indeed.

And, so, as the St. Paul Pioneers embark on their 2011 season – one that follows a 2010 NEFL title – perhaps they can be excused from expecting big things again.  Make no mistake. Nobody with the Pioneers is taking another championship for granted. Nothing is won on paper. No one looking at the Pioneers’ pedigree is going to lie down for the team in cardinal and black. If anything, the 2010 title in a new league against nearly a dozen new teams simply painted a bigger target on the Pioneers’ backs.

But if their past success has taught St. Paul anything, it is that they must continue to scratch and claw and fight through all kinds of adversity, simply to stay at the place where so many of their fans and followers have become accustomed – the top. The 2011 season will be a battle, with St. Paul playing in perhaps the toughest overall division in the Northern Elite Football League. And, yet, this is why they play – to see if they have what it takes to win it all, again.

Pioneers Head Coach Mark Heiser, level-headed and cool under pressure, is sure to keep the team on an even keel in this, his fourth season at the helm.

Many of the Pioneers’ chances for continued success will rely on how well St. Paul’s offense retools and reinvents itself. Gone are starting quarterback Alex Neist and top-flight receiver Rashem Sharpe. But in their place are new arms, new legs and some all-star returnees who promise to make the Pioneers offense not only as exciting, but perhaps even more balanced.

All-everything wideout Joseph Mapson, the Pioneers offensive MVP in 2010, returns, as do big-play receivers Reggie Houston and the timeless Damien Rochon-Washington. Tight end Joe Ubani and running backs Nick Graham, Brian Holmes and Brian Warden are expected to carry a bigger share of the offensive load, behind a beefed-up offensive line – led by C.J. Sanderson, Shannon Johnson, Chad Michaels, Thomas Broussard, Jacob Husnik, Lonal Van, Zach Thompson and others – that boasts skill, grit and depth. In all, the Pioneers have added talent throughout the offense, from a stable of backs that goes six or seven deep, to receivers who can stretch the field and score from anywhere.

“We’ve got a lot of talented running backs, which, again, is a good problem to have,” offensive coordinator Rob Neumann said. “The guys are all team players and know that they’ll be sharing the ball. And that definitely helps.”

At quarterback, the Pioneers head into 2011 with two signal-callers battling for the starting job. Veteran Paul Ciochetto, who led the Pioneers to a 2004 MFL championship, returns and is competing with Bryan Trulen, St. Paul’s back-up quarterback from last season.

“Having a QB battle is good for us,” Neumann said. “The decision on who starts won’t be an easy one. Both guys have what it takes to be successful for us.”

The Pioneers lost some top-notch talent from the defensive side of the ball, with a handful of players heading to Eau Claire to join the Chippewa Valley Predators.  St. Paul defeated the Predators last year in the league semi-finals. But defensive coordinator Jim Walsh said the players who return – all-America defensive tackle Jeff McGaster, conference MVP linebacker Josh Hollie, team defensive MVP Nate Beulah and interception machine and all-star game hero Terry Jones – will once again make St. Paul’s defense formidable.

“McGaster and Hollie have been beasts for us these past few seasons. Both are young, fast, strong and smart,” Walsh said. “But we have lots of guys with talent, speed and smarts.”

Stalwarts Guillaume Paek, Kym Trueblood, Darrell Young, Adrian Mitchell and Andre Spencer will ensure the Pioneers continue to be stingy. Veterans Cliff Gordy, Patrick Mitambo and John Robinson are expected to take on more significant roles. Newcomers T.J. Juneau and Jake Schoenecker should contribute.

“I would be surprised that with the guys we have back, combined with fresh blood and new excitement on the D-line and with the linebackers, if we are not among the league leaders again this season,” Walsh said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Special Teams
Special teams are expected to be a Pioneers strength again in 2011, picking up on the momentum last year’s squad gained as the season went on. League all-stars Kyle Stelter (long-snapper) and kicker Jay Harding are back, reprising their roles.  They will be joined by healthy competition among several young, fast players hoping to make their mark on coach Peter Globa’s kicking and return units.

“We are younger, faster and hungrier than ever,” Globa said of the special teams. “Guys want to prove themselves. We will give them that chance.”