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Longtime 11-man power Cavalier moves to 9-man

CAVALIER -- Alex Hartz admits he wasn't too excited when it was determined that Cavalier would switch from 11-man to 9-man football this season.

"I was a little disappointed," said Hartz, a senior at Cavalier High School. "We have about the same numbers (of athletes) as we had last year. It's always been 11-man football in Cavalier. And we've always had good teams.

"But now that we're playing it, it looks like 9-man will be a lot of fun. I'm pretty excited. It's a little more spread out, a little bit more of a wide-open game."

Cavalier makes its 9-man debut today with a road game at Drayton-Valley-Edinburg.

Cavalier's declining enrollment resulted in the state high school league's shifting the northeast North Dakota town to 9-man. The Tornadoes were longtime powers in 11-man.

Cavalier won three straight Class AA state titles (2002-04) and had a 47-game winning streak that was snapped in the 2005 Class A state championship game. More recently, Cavalier reached the Class A state quarterfinals in 2009 and last season was eliminated in the A semifinals, the Tornadoes' lone loss of the season.

Now Cavalier will have a lot of new faces, as well as fewer of them, in the starting lineup. The only starters back from a year ago are Hartz at linebacker and two-way starting lineman Spencer Robbins.

"We graduated 13 kids from last year's team, and they were definitely an above-average group," Cavalier coach Sandy Laxdal said. "They were very athletic and very competitive. That's something we have to instill in this group. There are a lot of adjustments, the faster speed of the game, on the varsity level."

Laxdal isn't a newcomer to the 9-man game. He coached it for six seasons at Cando, before his move to Cavalier where he's entering his third season as head coach.

He sees a Tornadoes team that has the physical skills that should translate well to 9-man.

Hartz is expected to be one of the leaders in the transition. He rushed for 213 yards as Cavalier's top reserve running back last season. He's a speedster -- Hartz ran a leg on Cavalier's 4x100 relay team that won the title at last spring's state track meet. Fellow running back Jarret Johnson and quarterback Ryan Chrest also provide speed in the backfield.

"Nine-man is a more wide-open style," Laxdal said. "This group is tailor-made for that style. We're not very big size-wise. Our strength is our speed.

"Eleven-man is more of a grind-it-out style of play, winning games on the line of scrimmage. Nine-man is more speed, getting outside and making big plays. You have more room to work, and that's a good thing. Our backfield is mostly speed-back types. People here will probably see more scoring than what they've been accustomed to."

DeVillers is a sports reporter for the Grand Forks Herald, which is owned by Forum Communications Co.