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'A special feeling': Blue Hawks enter the season with high hopes

Pete Stanton has seen some good Blue Hawk football teams over the years. His senior year in 1987 at Dickinson State was defined by a stifling defense and an undefeated regular-season record. He was an assistant in 2010 when the Blue Hawks last cl...

Dickinson State senior running back Tray Boone carries the ball against Valley City State on Sept. 26 at the Biesiot Activities Center. (Press File Photo)
Dickinson State senior running back Tray Boone carries the ball against Valley City State on Sept. 26 at the Biesiot Activities Center. (Press File Photo)

Pete Stanton has seen some good Blue Hawk football teams over the years.

His senior year in 1987 at Dickinson State was defined by a stifling defense and an undefeated regular-season record. He was an assistant in 2010 when the Blue Hawks last climbed all the way into the NAIA national poll's top 10.

He knows the importance of not overreacting to preseason accolades and a good training camp. But even he admits what many on the roster will readily say - this team has the chance to be really good.

"There's a lot of excitement here and in our community. But it's going to come down to going out and performing, staying healthy and being consistent," Stanton said. "But I would say there is a lot of excitement. They've put in so much time and so much effort."

Stanton declined to get into specific goals for the season, but referred to the team's maturity as the reason for his confidence. It's an overused term, but in this case, it carries real weight.

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There are 42 upperclassmen on the roster, comprised of 22 seniors and 20 juniors. It's the biggest senior class "in a long time," Stanton said.

They've won the respect of the conference (picked to win the North Star Athletic Association in the preseason coaches poll) and the NAIA (No. 21 in the NAIA preseason coaches poll). They return seven first-team all-conference players and had another seven make the preseason all-conference team.

They return an elite running back in Tray Boone, and have Kaler Ray, the presumptive starting quarterback, back on the field after a collarbone injury took most of his junior season. The defense has six starters returning from last year's Week 1 starting lineup.

They also have something you can't put on paper: locker room chemistry.

"This fall camp was really special, really important," Boone said earlier this month. "I find it special just because there is a special feeling in this locker room from last year. I can feel a big difference, so just being out there in fall camp with the guys, I can see a lot of potential with this team."

The "special feeling" many of the players talk about comes, in part, from the summer, when more than 50 Blue Hawks stayed in Dickinson, something Stanton still marvels over.

DSU's first test - and perhaps its biggest - is against former Frontier Conference foe Montana Western today, which will serve as a good measuring stick of the team's progress. After that, none of the nine scheduled games against NAIA teams include a member of the preseason top 25 poll. The other game on the calendar is against Black Hills State, an NCAA Division II team and former Dakota Athletic Conference rival.

"They understand what's at stake. The guys that are seniors this year really had a rough freshman year. They've been through the lows when it was very difficult for them," said Stanton, referencing 2013, the only season in program history the Blue Hawks lost double-digit games. "They understand that winning a conference championship is done. They understand, as seniors, that if you reminisce, you aren't going to have a very good senior year."

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After an early exit from last year's playoffs - a 44-10 loss at Montana Tech - DSU can put itself in position to avoid a tough matchup by improving its 8-3 record from last season and by beating lesser teams convincingly.

More national recognition would mean a lesser playoff opponent, should the Blue Hawks get to that point.

"The feeling that we have is kind of close to last year, but we have higher hopes of getting farther. Everyone wants that conference championship, but we want to get farther into November, and into December," sophomore offensive lineman Jeff Fisher said. "That came from the summer workouts we had with over 50 guys staying here. That was with the one goal of getting farther into the playoffs, and maybe into the championships."

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