Posted On: 04/11/17 1:30 AM

Over the past four years, the Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton Rebels’ football program has been one of the most successful programs in the state of Minnesota. They have been to the state semi-finals the last two years and are the four-time Section 8AAA champions. It is evident to anyone that the Rebels have one of the most successful programs in the state. All anyone has to do is use their eyes.

When Tony Soderberg took the program over the young coach gave the program stability and direction, but the program’s improvement came from the kids.  It wasn’t hard for Soderberg to convince the kids to follow his direction. His first senior class bought into the program and individually improved. It wasn’t hard for subsequent classes to buy what Soderberg was selling.

“The kids know their eyes,” Soderberg said, “aren’t lying to them.”

Soderberg played high school football at Minot High School, but in college, his athletic career would take him in a different path.

“I went to Minnesota State University Moorhead on a wrestling scholarship,” Soderberg said. “I had a couple of NAIA offers, but I went to Moorhead State for college.”

Soderberg knew he wanted to be a teacher since high school.

“I spent a lot of time coaching younger kids in wrestling and enjoyed it,” Soderberg said, “so I thought it was a natural fit to be a teacher and a coach.”

The young teacher and coach was hired at DGF right out of college and moved up the Rebels’ coaching ladder quickly.

“I got to coach the ninth graders,” Soderberg said about his first year. “The new head coach we got had to leave after one year because he was on a long-term substitute contract and that person came back so he left and we got another head coach. I moved up to the varsity defensive coordinator position for that season. The problem was that coach was also on a long-term sub position, and that (position and coach) went away.”

That off-season Soderberg walked into his athletic director’s office and threw his hat in the ring.

“I said ‘I might not have all the experience in the world, but I will be around here for a while. I would like to give the kids some consistency.’ I got the job at the age of twenty-five years old with no experience whatsoever.”

The program wasn’t in dire straits, but Soderberg felt the previous few seasons could have been better. He felt it was because the program had three coaches in three years and not because the athletic cupboard was bare.

“They played good football. They played physical football – that wasn’t the problem. They had to go from one system to the next, and the kids didn’t have any kind of consistency.”

To give the kids some consistency and to deal with his own inexperience as a head coach, Soderberg kept the basic offense and defense in place from the previous year. Keeping things the same and only making slight changes paid off.

“They were 6-4 the year before I took over. We were 6-4 my first year, and then we went 9-2. We had a nice build, but we had some really good athletes. I think they could have just shown up and gone 5-5 coaching themselves.”

The first few years the Rebels were a smash mouth offense.

“We would line up in the Maryland I – three guys lined up in a straight line in the backfield – and we just ran the ball at you.”

The offense has evolved based on their personnel. After a few years, kids with different skill sets came into the program. Soderberg and his staff had to adjust.

“Either you are going to mow people over, or you are going to get stuffed,” Soderberg admitted. “As soon as you get stuffed you have to have something else to go to. (A few years in) we didn’t have that at that point. That is directly the result of me not having much experience so we have tried to adapt and change and put the kids in a position where they can be successful.”

“We transitioned to a double tight, double wing,” Soderberg continued. “We put people in motion and hide the ball; we go left and counter right and try to put us in a situation where we don’t have to blow everybody off the ball every time.”

Like most coaches, the staff is continually adding things they think will work and getting rid of things that are not.

“We see what other teams do and pick and chose,” the ninth-year head coach said. “We steal what we like from other teams, go to clinics, buy DVDs and watch what other teams do. We find what fits to give the kids a good chance to be successful.”

On defense, the previous head coach ran a 4-3 base defense, so the Rebels stayed with that for three or four years until Soderberg and defensive coordinator Jesse Barnacle attended a North Dakota State football clinic.

“We listened to a Wisconsin coach talk about his defense and a lot of what he said rang true and made sense for us. We switched to a 4-2-5,” recalled Soderberg. “Now we are all about alignment, having the kids knowing exactly what their assignment is and what they are reading on every play – we go and play football. We don’t do a lot of fancy stuff. We have one base defense. We want our kids to read their keys, react and tackle well.”

Like his defense, Soderberg – who calls the offense and works mainly with the offensive line – is candid with the kids.

“I am pretty straight forward, and I am pretty honest and hard working. That is who I am, and that is what you are going to get. I just want the kids to know that I have their best interests at heart; that I am fair and I have expectations for them, and if those expectations aren’t met they will be notified right away about it. Other than that – have fun. Playing football and coaching football are some of the most fun things I think you can do. When it is time to be serious it is time to be serious, but when it is time to joke around it is time to joke around – that is the kind of guy I am. I am having fun with it. I think the kids respond well to it.”

Message Delivered, Message Received

It didn’t take long for the kids to buy into his message.

“My first year I told the kids to lift; I told them to do this and told them to do that,” Soderberg said. “They did it, and the younger class saw the success from it. They saw the kid that going into the summer was benching 170 pounds to after summer 230 pounds. They saw what it did for him to play football. They saw the benefits of it. After establishing some years and some success, it has gotten to the point where the kids see what the other kids in the classes ahead of them are doing, and they follow along. They want that success. If they don’t do it, they are going to figure it out quick that if the guy next to him lifted all summer and they didn’t, they are going to get passed up. The kids know their eyes aren’t lying to them.”

“We’ve got great kids,” Soderberg continued. “We’ve got kids that if they are not in a sport, they are lifting. They have taken it upon themselves – I don’t even go into the weight room in the summer. It has just become an expectation. ”

As the kids continued to improve; the coaching staff stayed intact and improved too.

“Our coaching staff gained experience. Except for one coach we added two years ago, I have had the same coaching staff with me for the last nine years. We’ve taken our lumps, and we’ve learned from our lumps.”

That coaching staff includes Barnacle who was an assistant with Soderberg under the previous head coaches.

“I would consider him a co-head coach,” Soderberg said. “He handles the entire defense to point where I don’t worry about it anymore, which allows me more time to focus on the offense. I can bounce questions off him, but at the same time, he is having fun too. He is great with the kids and is a big reason for our success. Two years ago we hired Tony Reno – he used to be the coach here and coached the defensive line at Concordia (Moorhead) for ten years. Jason Sunde has been with me the whole time and coaches the ninth grade along with Todd Bergeson. They do a great job keeping it fun for the kids. Bryant Bergeson runs the special teams with Reno.  “Reno and Bryant do a phenomenal job on special teams and like coach Barnacle and the defense, they allow me to focus on offense and managing the game.” They are a great staff and are all teachers in the district which is huge. Most important is they keep football fun for the kids and have they also have fun” We are just a bunch of big kids out here.”

The coaching staff likes to have fun on the practice field, but it is not all fun and games.

“We stress family. We have to play for each other and trust each other,” Soderberg explained. “You have to hold yourself accountable whether it is in season or the off-season. We have our expectations to go out and get better each day. They need to give great effort – that is the one thing the kids can control – how much effort they give. We put the responsibility on them to give their best effort every day. Once they get the fact that they are responsible for people and people care about them, and we are a family as a team, you see those kids start holding themselves accountable.”

DGF hasn’t had to put in much effort into getting kids to play football. While part of that is because of the success they have had on game day, it is also because the coaching staff knows football is a game and is something to be enjoyed.

“Football is a fun sport. For us, instead of having (the kids) line up on a line and sprint back and forth, we’ll play football instead,” said Coach Soderberg. “We don’t condition the kids extremely hard. That comes along with the expectations. The kids know they are responsible for coming into the season in shape. They are responsible – if they are not in shape – to run on their own afterward.”

Like conditioning, Soderberg leaves the responsibility up to his players to get all the good athletes in the school who are not in a fall sport to play football.

“You have to have the kids go out and ask and ask to get those kids out. We have one kid who went out for baseball for the first time just so this other kid who plays baseball will come out for football.”

On the field, the ultimate goal is to win a state championship. DGF – who recently picked as one of the teams to beat next season in AAA – has been close for the last half dozen years, but so far has not been able to get over the final hump. While Soderberg doesn’t like the fact that they have gotten close, but have not walked away with the ultimate prize, he also knows they as a coaching staff and a program are getting closer.

“I handle (losing in the playoffs) poorly for about two weeks after we don’t get there.  I don’t sleep much, but the thing is building,” the former Dragons’ wrestler said. “We are not seeing a decline. It all comes down to experience. Even this year, we played Rochester Lourdes, and as a coach, we have to learn how to handle the option a lot better than we did otherwise we won’t deserve to win. That 9-2 team my second year had a lot of great athletes, but I wasn’t, and the other coaches weren’t experienced enough to get them where they needed to be. With each step we take, we are picking up little things and are getting better at our craft.”

To get better at their craft, each off-season the coaching staff likes to focus on two or three things in the program they think they need to improve.

“We want to hammer those points home,” Soderberg said. “You have to get better each year, so we want to make those things that much better. You just want to learn from your mistakes from the previous year – get rid of the stuff that didn’t work and focus on the things that did work, and hopefully, you produce a better football team.”

To be a better team next year, Soderberg has over thirty seniors returning. Among those seniors, the Rebels will have all five of their offensive linemen back.

Hunter MacziewskiJohnathan HeibergAnthony SavageauJacob ArendsAndy Oberg and we are always in double tights, so we’ve got a tight end back – (NFN’s Class of 2019 Watch List member) Bryce Anderson. That will be the nucleus,” Soderberg told “They have been through a whole season together. That is going to be a huge thing for us.  We are going to rely on those big guys up front.”

The 2017 version of the Dilworth-Glyndon-Felton football team will rely on the veteran guys in the trenches, just like previous DGF teams have relied on the veterans before them. They relied on what their eyes were telling them and with that came success.

“I think we have been successful because we have been able to teach the kids what good football is and they have listened and responded – not only on the field but off the field,” Soderberg concluded. “That comes down to good decisions, and the kids are reaping the benefits of that. I just enjoy working with the kids here because of their attitude and what they do.”