Spring football is officially back for Dickinson State — but with an unprecedented twist. After six months, the time has come for the long-awaited arrival of the NAIA football national tournament. For the undefeated Blue Hawks, the calendar may say spring, but the practices show their mindset is finishing what the team started last fall.
The Blue Hawks ended their regular season on Nov. 7 with a 52-34 victory over Presentation College, clinching their sixth straight NSAA conference title along with the sixth-ever undefeated season within the program’s 46 years.
Six months later, the No. 12 Blue Hawks are lacing up the cleats, putting on the pads and securing theirs helmets for their sixth consecutive appearance in the NAIA tournament, with the goal of hoping to garner more success than the 2018 Blue Hawks, who fell in the quarterfinals.
For Pete Stanton, who is in his seventh season as head coach of the Blue Hawks football team, the adjustment of getting his players ready for aggressive fall football in the spring months has been purely divergent.
“It’s definitely been different, it’s been unique, but our guys have really embraced it,” Stanton said. “Usually in the spring we wouldn’t condition as much. We’ve just really pushed them, and they’ve had a great January and February getting themselves ready, but now we know it’s go time.
“We’ve really spent a lot of time with our (starters) and getting those guys ready and getting them prepared for a playoff experience and doing our thing getting ready for that first game. Our guys have really just adjusted well,” Stanton added.
With no scheduled games until the official win-or-go-home tournament begins, and the anticipation of the upcoming selection show increasing, Stanton and the other coaches have been finding different ways to keep the team active while getting some action and an initial taste of combat with practices that one would typically see following the end of the fall season, and scrimmages.
In its first scrimmage, Dickinson State met Minot State for the first time in 11 years in an indoor facility last week to get the players officially active and get the game-time adrenaline pumping. Despite the Blue Hawks being able to play nine games during the regular season, the Beavers' season never reached the field after being canceled due to COVID.
“It was just good to see somebody else and see a team that we’re never going to see during the (regular season), and our guys just did a good job of executing and running around and flying to the football,” Stanton said. “I thought our guys did some really nice things, so it was really good to get into a game atmosphere and play against those guys.”
The scrimmage against the Beavers will not be the Blue Hawks' last, with Dickinson State getting prepared for one final scrimmage on the road in Jamestown against NSAA conference opponent Dakota State before it's revealed who their upcoming opponent will be in the tournament.
The Blue Hawks finished the 2020 season leading the NSAA in scoring points per game with an average of 33.9, total offensive yardage per game with 424.7, scoring defense per game with 14.4, and punt returns per game with 10.8 yards gained.
Nevertheless, the NAIA tournament brings a completely different level of competition than that of regular-season football. As a result of the team having such a long waiting period, fans are curious how the Blue Hawks will perform in the upcoming tournament.
Stanton hopes the answer will be the team continues its dominant stature.
“Knowing now the selection show is coming up Sunday, definitely the energy level is starting to get that playoff feel and we have to practice at a higher level,” Stanton said. “We have to play at a higher level, and it’s a unique situation, and everybody knows that.
“There’s teams that have been playing three or four games but then some teams have been missing games … we’ve said this since last August so we control ourselves, control one practice at a time — that’s really the attitude that we’re taking.”
The Blue Hawks’ upcoming opponent is yet to be announced, but regardless of who the competition will be, Dickinson State is ready to represent the city of Dickinson to the best of its ability in the upcoming tournament.
“We’re just going to play whoever we’re picked to play, and whoever our opponent is we’re just going to be ready to go,” Stanton said. “We have a lot of guys that have been there before, they’ve been in the playoffs before. Whoever it is and wherever it is we've got to be ready to go and embrace the opportunity.”
The 2021 NAIA Selection Show is scheduled for Sunday, April 11, at 5 p.m. CST. The opening-round games are scheduled for April 17 with the top seeds set to host the lower-seeded competitors on its home field.