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Prep football: As a young gun and a vet, Lee exhibits poise

Tribune photo by Tom Larson Dawson-Boyd quarterback Joey Lee prepares to throw during a 25-20 win over Canby in the Section 5A semifinals Oct. 26 in Dawson. Lee leads the Blackjacks into the state semifinals on Saturday.

Two years ago, Joey Lee set foot on the Metrodome turf for the first time and if he wasn’t in uniform it would have been easy to mistake him for some varsity football player’s younger brother.

The fair-skinned kid wore his bristles of hair cropped so close it was tough to tell where his forehead ended and his hairline began. A set of braces made his big smile gleam even brighter, and the few whiteheads dotting his smooth teenage chin still outnumbered the whiskers.

Then Lee snapped on Dawson-Boyd’s simple black helmet and transformed into a seasoned, steely football general.

Against Blooming Prairie in the 2011 Class A semifinals, with the Awesome Blossoms keying on Dawson-Boyd’s prodigious running tandem of Justin Lee and Esten Weber, the first-year sophomore starter shrugged off an early interception and came back to throw four touchdowns passes and run for three more. His seven-touchdown performance led the Blackjacks to a 50-27 victory.

But Joey Lee didn’t let his remarkable game super-size his ego. The next week, knowing his role on a veteran 14-0 team, Lee hit 7 of 10 passes for 90 yards. Five of his completions moved the chains. He did run for one touchdown but he mostly put the ball in the hands of the team’s reliable playmakers and the Blackjacks responded with a championship in the school’s first trip to the state tournament.

This Saturday, when the Blackjacks play Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s in their third straight trip to the Class A state semifinals, 730 days will have passed since Joey Lee first trotted onto Mall of America Field. But not much has changed.

“Joe’s been composed since day one,” said Blackjacks head coach Cory Larson. “He doesn’t get rattled — never has. The nice thing about him is that he’ll make a mistake, he’ll take ownership and he’ll bounce back and he makes a play. His overall leadership is second to none.”

Lee hasn’t had to bounce back from much during his three-year varsity career.

The Blackjacks are 36-3 with Lee starting. Two of those losses came against Minneota/Lincoln HI, a Class AA state semifinalist this season. The other loss came in last season’s state semifinals against Bethlehem Academy, which plays Mahnomen in the other Class A state semifinal on Saturday.

If the Blackjacks win Saturday, the Class A championship game would mark Lee’s 41st start the last three years.

“That’s pretty amazing when we could have only played 42 games,” Larson said. “Hopefully he plays in 41 and we go to the state championship game.”

Having Lee going in a game like that is akin to starting a Cy Young ace in Game 7 of the World Series. Everyone’s confidence level rises when a team’s trigger man has a state title and three trips to the final four on his resume.

Fittingly, Lee sees it the other way around.

“A large part of that is my teammates,” Lee said. “I’ve been fortunate to play with some great athletes every single year I’ve played. Two years ago, a couple of guys went on to play college football and a couple of others could have. Last year, we had three guys go on to play at Southwest Minnesota State, a (NCAA) Division II school. This year we’ve got another great group of guys. Not that they’re just great at football but they’re just great guys and I love every one of them.”

Lee’s leadership credentials have obviously been established, but what sometimes gets overlooked is the fact that he’s quite a talent.

This season, Lee has completed 60 percent of his passes for 1,838 yards, 20 touchdowns and 6 interceptions, and he’s run for 108 yards and 4 TDs.

Entering Saturday’s game, Lee’s career numbers look a lot like those of a quarterback who could play at the next level: 61.5 percent completion rate, 5,226 yards, 66 touchdowns against 23 interceptions. He’s rushed for 264 yards and 13 more TDs, and he’s made 54 tackles from his safety position, with 5 interceptions and another touchdown.

“He’s as competitive as you’ll find in an athlete,” Larson said. “Put on top of that all the athletic ability he has and the football IQ. That makes a pretty darn good football player.”

What muddles Lee’s college decision is that the 6-foot-1, 185-pounder is a pretty darn good basketball player, too.

Lee is a two-time Tribune All-Area player who was the Camden North Conference MVP last year, averaging 18 points, 5 assists and 6 rebounds per game. He’s already a 1,000-point career scorer. The Blackjacks teams he directs from his guard spot are 48-9 with two trips to the Section 3A finals the last two seasons.

Currently, Lee is looking at St. Thomas, Augsburg and Bethel for football, and his early basketball list includes those three schools, plus Gustavus and Bethany.

“Everything’s really wide open,” Lee said. “I’m going to make some visits for basketball once the football season is over and then decide which way I want to go. I’m just enjoying the process and I’m just blessed to have the opportunities.”

Pressed a bit on the subject, Lee said, “I’ve played basketball a little longer than I’ve played football but it’s definitely not going to be an easy decision.”

True to form, however, Lee isn’t factoring either sport into decisions about his future beyond college. He hasn’t settled on a major but he’s clear-headed about life beyond competitive athletics.

“I realize that the NBA and the NFL probably aren’t in the picture so (a college choice) isn’t going to be all about sports,” Lee said. “It’s going to be what school is the best fit and what’s going to set me up best for my future.”

The braces are gone. The big smile isn’t. The beyond-his-years maturity merely evolves along with his sporting skills. Lee will get at least one more chance to live the big prep football dream and then he’s ready for whatever challenge comes next.

“I love both football and basketball a lot,” Lee said. “But when the decision is made, I’ll be excited to move ahead.”

Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

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