'I'll sleep when I'm dead': Dickinson's four-time consecutive Tech Wars champion

Meet Gus Zettel, a winner of the statewide Tech Wars competition, a 4.5 GPA student and among 0.3% in the nation to score a perfect ACT. He shares his future goals, plans at UND and more.

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Gus Zettel is a Dickinson High School senior whose hard work and ambition have provided him with a long list of achievements.
Photo courtesy of Tara Zettel.

DICKINSON - Dickinson senior, Gus Zettel, has become a four-time champion of the statewide Tech Wars competition at Valley City State University, winning every year since his freshman competition in the team competition. The North Dakota tech prodigy boasts a more than perfect GPA of 4.5, is among the very select group of students to score a perfect ACT score and has an impressive list of extracurricular activities under his belt. Zettel's “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” attitude is making waves in the state's S.T.E.M. circles.

"I could never have done this without the help of my team," Zettel said. "Brandon Shutes, Braydon Jangula, Rowan Lange, Hunter Bradley and Jackson Sticka have all been instrumental in these successes. Huge thank you to all of them!"

Gus acknowledges that he is the type of person who never sits still and has a habit of setting the bar high in every aspect of his life, from academics to extracurricular activities. Not only is he at the top of his class, but he is also involved in a lengthy list of clubs, organizations and volunteer activities around southwest North Dakota.

From serving on the Dickinson Youth Commission and Leadership Dickinson to student council, National Honor Society, speech and drama, he does it all while maintaining a job. Gus himself isn’t quite sure what the secret to his balancing act is, but one thing is for certain — he loves the vast and ever-changing world of technology.

A total of nine teams participated in the Tech Wars competition and were given two hours to complete a challenge where they designed a soccer game using Scratch, a high-level programming language.


The path to Tech Wars began for Gus back when he joined the science club in seventh grade, eventually leading him to join TSA which would help him dive even deeper into coding and STEM.

“I saw all the older kids doing it and they got the big old trophy, and that was cool and so I wanted to be a part of that,” Gus said.

Gus didn’t know many people in the program at the time and he couldn't have guessed the friendship that would form between him and his teammates over the next few years.

Noticing a few boys determined to make something in Scratch work, Gus took his knowledge and skill and helped them fix it, a seemingly small act with a big impact.

“I guess from that point on we were the team,” Gus said.

What was once just a Tech Wars team has transformed into a friendship and brotherhood for Gus and his friends Brandon Shutes and Braydon Jangula.

“We make one heck of a trio,” Gus laughed.

Brandon Shutes (left) Gus Zettel (middle) and Braydon Jangula (right) are the trio of friends who won the statewide Tech Wars competition at Valley City State University this year.
Photo courtesy of Gus Zettel

While Gus works on code, Brandon handles the art, and Brayden serves as the ideas guy Gus said.


“You wouldn't think computers and people skills go together…” Tara Zettel Gus' mom said, but she has watched her son and his friends grow through the process.

Tara said she has watched her son learn how to lead a team navigating the strengths and motivations of the group while delegating and knowing how to pivot when needed.

“I'm proud of him no matter what, of course. Anything he tries he does well, he always puts in 110%,” Tara said.

Tara can't help but find humor in reminiscing on Gus’ journey into tech back when he was a young kid.

“When he was a kid, he just of course loved video games and I felt it was my duty to restrict that and to temper that enthusiasm, and then at some point, there was just no point because now we will just design his own,” Tara said.

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Tara and Gus Zettel give Gus' signature thumbs-up pose after celebrating his birthday.
Photo courtesy of Tara Zettel.

Gus can remember daydreaming about video games back in elementary school and being able to play them in his head and maybe all that time he was envisioning how to make the game better Tara said.

The best part of building his coding and STEM skills has been the creativity and problem-solving he is able to have particularly with software Gus said.

As Gus puts it, coding is limitless.


“Like whatever is in [your mind], if you know how to do it you can put it onto the screen in front of you, and that's just a lot of fun,” Gus said.

The limitless world of coding has taught him to not be afraid of making mistakes.

Gus contrasts coding to math in the sense that there is no one correct answer. For example, creating a text block can happen in 15 different ways, it just depends on which one is best for your purposes he said.

“You don't make one mistake and then everything is wrong. You make a mistake, you can adapt, you can pivot, because there’s no one correct solution,” Gus said.

While it's hard to imagine Gus having any free time, he does look forward to the summer months when he can enjoy his time in the sunshine.

One of his favorite things to do is just lay out on a yard chair and sit in the sun, much like his dog Lily who chases the sunbeam on his bed as Gus studies.

As for when the summer fades to fall, Gus plans to begin his college career at the University of North Dakota.

“Truly the boys he's been making video games with, those are his boys and they're going to college together,” Tara said.


The trio of friends plans on attending the university together where Gus intends to pursue software engineering, while Brandon and Brayden plan to study aerospace flight piloting and medicine.

Allison is a news reporter from Phoenix, Arizona where she earned a degree in journalism from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. After college, she worked as a middle school writing teacher in the valley. She has made her way around the U.S. driving from Arizona to Minnesota and eventually finding herself here in Dickinson. She has a passion for storytelling and enjoys covering community news.
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