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Grizzly men

Press Photos by Dustin Monke Dickinson State senior Jeremy Mallard, front, is one of the first players on the men's basketball team to come up with the concept of "conference beards. Senior Mark Versen, back, said he's not touching his new facial hair as long as the team keeps winning.1 / 5
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The best way to describe the Dickinson State men's basketball team lately is gritty. That's the way the Blue Hawks have been playing and that's the look they're showcasing.

Before the Dakota Athletic Conference season began earlier this month, a few members of the team decided to grow what they describe as "conference beards."

The look quickly caught on and since the beards began growing, DSU hasn't lost a game.

The Blue Hawks are 6-0 in 2009 and are alone at the top of the DAC with a 7-0 record. They're 14-7 overall and recently jumped to No. 21 in the NAIA Division II poll.

The second half of their conference season begins tonight when they host Minot State at 7:30 p.m. at Scott Gymnasium.

If DSU keeps its win streak alive, don't expect to see a clean-shaven team anytime soon.

"They're a pretty tight-knit crew," DSU coach Ty Orton said. "They want to make sure they keep this thing going and remember it. It's kind of something special. They put their heads together and came up with this."

Reports vary as to how the trend actually took hold of the team, but most players point to senior guard Jeremy Mallard and junior forward Branden Thomas as the innovators.

Mallard began growing his beard before DSU played Minot State for the first time on Dec. 6, 2008, while Thomas had some variation of facial hair since he arrived at DSU in the fall.

"I'd just been growing mine out since the Minot game and a couple of us were like, 'we'll just do it until we lose,' and we haven't lost a conference game so we just kept them," said Mallard, who recently trimmed his beard but kept a decent amount of growth.

Despite being on a win streak, the team doesn't see the beards as a superstition. They describe it more as an exercise in team unity.

"I think we'd be winning with or without the beards," senior forward Mark Versen said.

Said Thomas: "It was more like a unity thing, as far as the team. I think that helped us out a lot. Once we got everybody to do it, it showed how much more together we were and showed how much more of a team we were."

Still, players say some of their best memories from the past three weeks have been watching the different growth of each player's facial hair.

Everyone has a special style.

Thomas keeps his cropped close. Sophomore forward Ryan Ernst sports a neck beard. Junior guard Brian Lebsock has grown his early season Tom Brady-esque stubble into a classic beard.

While most manage their beards with care and make certain their mugs still look somewhat appealing, Versen is completely different.

"I'm the only one who really lets it go," Versen said. "Everyone else lines it up. I just like to go grimy."

Then there are the baby faces.

Senior forward Tomaul Hawkins keeps to the team's code even though his patchy facial hair doesn't look the best and senior point guard Sean Burnham is proud of his ever-expanding chinstrap beard, even though it took a while to grow.

"It started out a little slow, but it's starting to fill out as more games go on," Burnham said.

The only player who isn't keeping with the trend is sophomore guard Nathan Lebsock.

And it's not by choice.

"I can't even grow it," Nathan Lebsock said. "I hear about it all the time. I've got Brian, who can probably grow the biggest beard on the team and then we've got me who's only a year younger and can't grow anything."

Beards are a common sight in sports these days -- just generally not in basketball. In recent years, it has been popular for football and hockey players to grow beards for the postseason or when they go on a win streak.

But, on a basketball court, where players are generally told to keep their hair as conservative as possible and the facial hair to a minimum, DSU's players are breaking new ground.

Orton just hopes no one gets the wrong idea about the beards and trusts fans to understand why the players did what they did.

"When you get to know the kids, you can't sit there and look at them and say, 'this kid is a bad kid because he has long hair or because he's not cleanly shaven,' " Orton said. "We got to know these kids and we really know that they're great kids off the floor. Once they get to know them, they're fun to be around, they're great people. They care about DSU and they care about their community."

The Blue Hawks are just more concerned with winning right now than how they look on the basketball court.

Dustin Monke

Monke came to The Dickinson Press in July 2006 as the newspaper's sports editor and was hired as its managing editor in March 2013. During his tenure at The Press, Monke has won multiple awards for sports reporting, feature reporting, column writing, page design and photography. He was a key part of The Press winning the North Dakota Newspaper Association's General Excellence and Sweepstakes awards in 2009 and 2012, and oversaw The Press' Sweepstakes and General Excellence wins in 2014, as well as its national first-place honors for Community Leadership in the Inland Daily Press Association and contributed to the first-place Inland award for Investigative Reporting. As the newspaper's editor, he writes an occasional Sunday column, is a member of The Press' Editorial Board, contributes feature stories and breaking news, designs pages, and oversees the day-to-day operations of the newsroom and editorial staff. In his free time, he enjoys watching sports and action movies, exercises whenever his schedule allows, and spends every minute he can with his wife and son.

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