Peterson: VCSU finds independent success
FARGO -- Valley City State hadn't advanced to the NAIA football playoffs since 2001, and the return postseason trip couldn't have come at a more critical time.
Even though the Dakota Athletic Conference still operated in name this season, the Vikings and the other three remaining DAC teams were classified as independents.
"I think it shows for our future we still have a path to the playoffs, even if we are an independent football team," Vikings head coach Dennis McCulloch said.
"We knew exactly what we needed to do," added Valley City State athletic director Jack Denholm. "I think a lot of people were skeptical of our avenue and route."
The Vikings have had a memorable fall, even with conference uncertainty swirling.
Valley City State played its first game on a newly installed artificial turf field in September. After losing that opener to then No. 5-ranked Morningside, the Vikings have won nine consecutive games.
"You can't really control it like you could if you had a conference affiliation," said 6-foot-4, 264-pouund senior defensive lineman Jordan Maher. "But you finish 9-1; it's pretty hard to keep you out of the playoffs."
The Vikings swept the DAC awards, with senior wide receiver LeTheo Proctor earning league MVP honors. Maher was named the most valuable senior and McCulloch was named coach of the year.
More importantly to the program, Valley City State showed that playing as an independent, while not the most desired situation, didn't signal an end to postseason play.
"Hopefully, people can see there is some stability and some quality still at Valley City State even though there's been a little upheaval with the loss of a conference," McCulloch said. "You want to have a chance to go into playoffs, you want a chance to win a national championship, and that can happen at Valley City State."
No. 12-ranked Valley City will get its chance against one of the best programs.
The Vikings play NAIA power Carroll College at 1:07 p.m. Saturday in the first round with the game being played in Helena, Montana. The No. 2-ranked Saints (10-1) are the defending NAIA champions and are making a 12th consecutive playoff appearance. Carroll College has won six national titles.
"You want to say that you can win a national championship, well you've got to beat one of the best teams," said McCulloch, whose teams played against Carroll in the 2000 and 2001 playoffs. "At some point in time, it's got to happen. That's one of our challenges right now."
Valley City State has some quality of its own.
Maher ranks fourth in NAIA with 11½ sacks. Proctor, from Anchorage, Alaska, has 872 receiving yards and caught 10 TDs. Senior running back AJ Pfeifer, from Buffalo, has rushed for 1,049 yards. Junior QB Tommy Zinke, from Rolla, ranks No. 8 in NAIA pass efficiency with a 153.7 rating. Zinke has passed for more than 2,200 yards and tossed 24 touchdowns.
"We've got a great senior class," said Maher, who is from Bowman. "We always kind of knew that we should be good, but it was a lot of talk, and we really hadn't done anything in our first years. It's great to make the playoffs."
Peterson is a sports reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which is owned by Forum Communications Co. His blog can be found
at peterson.areavoices.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org