HAWLEY, ND. — They were just a breath away from making it to the AA Minnesota high school state football tournament in 2018.

In 2019, they're ready to go the distance again.

The Hawley Nuggets went 9-2 last season, and after losing their opening game to eventual Class A state champions Mahnomen-Waubun, they went on a nine-game winning streak before they ultimately fell to Barnesville in the section 8AA final.

It stings even more knowing Hawley suffered the same fate, at the same Trojan hands, in 2017.

The difference this year is that they've graduated 18 seniors, and return 12, so youth will be on full display.

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Head coach Peder Naatz, who is in his 20th season at the helm for the Nuggets, said only one skill-position player returns in running back Derian Gerdes, and their depth lies in the offensive line.

Seven total starters return, four on the offense and three on the defense.

Despite their youth, the Nuggets are looking to surprise a lot of teams in section 8AA.

"It's going to be a grind," said senior defensive end and offensive tackle Justin Bentley. "If we play Hawley Nugget football, we hammer it down their throats most of the time."

"A lot of people aren't expecting us to do too much this year," said Gerdes. "I think that with the line we have, it's going to be a little wake-up call for a few other teams that we can win in the trenches."

The schedule looks challenging, with the Nuggets on the road to start the season against D-G-F, then return home against their rivals Barnesville, and then away at Pillager.

"I don't like anything about our schedule from the beginning," said Naatz. "We've got our work cut out for us at the beginning of the year, but if we can weather that storm and and be healthy after that, I think we're going to be OK and be able to challenge for some things at the end of the year."

The Nuggets take on the Rebels on August 30th at 7:00.