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Bison second-round matchup reunites offseason training partners

FARGO -- One college football team, the University of San Diego, has a roster mostly full of Californians. The other team, North Dakota State, has a roster mostly full of players from the Upper Midwest.

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North Dakota State University punter Jackson Koonce boots from the Bison end zone against South Dakota State on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. David Samson / Forum News Service

FARGO - One college football team, the University of San Diego, has a roster mostly full of Californians. The other team, North Dakota State, has a roster mostly full of players from the Upper Midwest.

So when those two programs hook up on Saturday at Gate City Bank Field at the Fargodome for an FCS second-round playoff game, the odds of good friends being on the opposite sideline are probably not real good. But that will be the case with NDSU's Jackson Koonce and the Toreros' Jack Flatau.

Not only that, they're both punters.

Both are from Oceanside, Calif., and both work out together in the off season at the Carney Training Facility in Carlsbad, Calif., operated by former NFL kicker John Carney. Before the season, ironically, both talked about how cool it would be to meet in the FCS playoffs.

"I didn't know if it was going to happen," Koonce said. "But they got the big upset and that was awesome."

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The big upset was San Diego's 35-21 first-round win at California Poly. Flatau punted four times for a 37.5-yard average in adverse, rainy conditions. He pinned the Mustangs once inside the 20-yard line.

They went to separate high schools in Oceanside, with Koonce going to Oceanside High School and Flatau going to El Camino High School. They've been in touch on social media this week, Koonce said, with a punter's version of friendly trash talk.

"We say things like, 'I'll see you more than you'll see me on the field,'" Koonce said with a laugh.

Both took a similar route to their respective FCS schools. Flatau, a junior, started at the University of Arizona and is in his second year with San Diego. Koonce, a junior, played two years at Southern Methodist University in Dallas before transferring to NDSU in the offseason. He's responded by his team leading the country in allowing the fewest yards on a punt return. Opponents have nothing on three tries.

Moreover, Koonce and his punt coverage team is on pace to break the FCS single season record of 0.96 yards per return set in 1988 by Yale, which held opponents to 23 yards on 24 returns.

"I think it's more of a reflection of guys like James Fisher, Chase Morlock and Tre Dempsey," Koonce said. "They've been fantastic this season. All I do is punt the football and they've been the best in the nation in covering it."

Koonce was named to the Missouri Valley Football All-Newcomer team. He's averaging 36.9 yards on 52 punts with 31 fair catches and 12 of them inside the 20-yard line. Although the yardage won't knock your eyes out, the hang time and net yardage has been valuable.

He said in fall camp that was his strength and he's been true to his word. Certainly, the fellow kickers at the Carney facility must be taking note.

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"You'll be out there and a Cowboys kicker will be over here and a Saints punter will be over there," Koonce said. "It's a neat environment to punt and kick in. We all know each other on a first-name basis and before games talk to each other. It's a great little community that we've got."

North Dakota State University punter Jackson Koonce boots from the Bison end zone against South Dakota State on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. David Samson / The Forum
Sep 5, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; San Diego Toreros kicker Jake Flatau (48) attempts a field goal during the second half of the game against the San Diego State Aztecs at Qualcomm Stadium. The Aztecs won 37-3. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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