Blue Hawks’ seniors pull Dickinson State football through tough years
There were 51 freshmen -- including redshirts -- on the 2011 Dickinson State football roster. Only four from that recruiting class will be on the field when the No. 24-ranked North Star Athletic Association champion Blue Hawks (8-2, 5-1) take on ...
There were 51 freshmen - including redshirts - on the 2011 Dickinson State football roster.
Only four from that recruiting class will be on the field when the No. 24-ranked North Star Athletic Association champion Blue Hawks (8-2, 5-1) take on Dakota (S.D.) State today at 3 p.m. in the Fargodome in Fargo during the North Star Bowl.
One of the biggest reasons that class shrunk over time was Dickinson State’s losing records, as the Blue Hawks won a collective seven games from 2011-2013.
“It was really hard to find motivation to get up and come out here,” senior offensive guard Lane Millay said. “But we stuck together. It was a lot of motivation from your teammates and coaches to keep pushing.”
Millay, center Meyer Bohn, running back Riley Moore and linebacker Matt McCoy are the only ones to have redshirted in 2011 and made it to this conference-winning year. Senior linebacker and long snapper Colten Johnston forwent a redshirt year and was active on the 2012 roster, where there were 39 freshmen with four years of eligibility ahead.
“I remember that first season. I don’t think I’ve been so depressed in my entire life,” Bohn said. “It’s tough. Losing is tough on people and the team, and it shows in your daily attitude and the way you go about things.”
The Blue Hawks went a dismal 2-9 that year and 1-10 the next - what Bohn called one of the lowest points in Dickinson State football’s history.
“You say to not hang your head after a loss, but when you’re losing games consecutively, it’s tough,” Bohn said. “Just knowing that pain, feeling that agony, that’s something I’ve used as fuel. That’s something a lot of these guys who have been around have used as fuel to get better because we know what that felt like, and it’s the worst feeling in the world.
“It makes winning that much more appreciated. I knew if I stuck it out, we would be OK. It worked out that way.”
There were a handful of players in Johnston’s class that didn’t redshirt, he said, but none stuck around.
“One thing you can really say about our group is that we’ve been through our tough times, but through those times you figure out who needs to turn it around,” Johnston said. “We’ve got a good group of guys who can lead the pack.”
A team captain, McCoy said he’s excited to play at the Fargodome, where North Dakota State plays, with a shot at the playoffs.
“Obviously it means a lot to me,” McCoy said. “I don’t take it for granted. The teammates I have on this team and the coaches are tremendous. I’m glad I did it with them.”
Even if Dickinson State’s season ends, though, Moore said football provided him a chance to establish lasting friendships.
“Collectively, we’ve all been playing together for so long now that it’s really like a brotherhood,” Moore said. “We’re always hanging out and are really close, so I feel like that’s transfered from on the field to off the field. It’s been an honor playing with these guys through all the rough seasons we’ve had. These are the guys who were just crazy enough to stick it out and get through it. I think that made us all closer.”
Millay added: “These are the guys you remember your whole life. Everything we’ve done, we’ve done together. It will be very difficult to say goodbye, but I know it won’t be the end for us. They’ll probably be in my wedding some of these guys.”
But those who have been at Dickinson State for four or five years aren’t the only seniors.
Defensive linemen Michael Hernandez transferred from Glendale (Calif.) Community College and was a second-team all-NSAA selection last year. This year he has 38 tackles.
“Michael is one of those guys that if you watch him in a game, you think he didn’t make a lot of plays, but then you watch film and he occupies a lot of people,” Dickinson State head coach Pete Stanton said. “He just does a good job on the defensive line.”
Senior safety Awa Poggi wasn’t a starter when he played at Mt. San Antonio (Calif.) College, but he came highly recommended to Stanton and didn’t disappoint. He was another second-team all-NSAA pick last year.
“He’s a guy that is just fun to be around and fun to coach,” Stanton said. “He plays hard, gets after it and is just a good young man.”
Senior defensive lineman Sefa Fatu transferred from American River (Calif.) College two years ago. Though he’s battled significant injuries in his career, he has been a two-year starter.
“He just plays so hard and has a heart of gold,” Stanton said. “When he’s been healthy, he’s been very good for us. We’re just really fortunate to have him back. Now that we have him and our front line guys back, he just makes us a lot better on the defensive front.”
Another transfer from Mt. San Antonio, senior wide receiver Josh Perry-Kruse has played three positions for the Blue Hawks - defensive back, wide receiver and kicker. He capped off his home career with two touchdowns against Mayville State last week.
“We asked him to do a lot of things this year. He has a lot of ability at receiver. He’s athletic and maybe our quickest guy,” Stanton said. “As far as being able to do things in the open field, he’s just got a really good knack.”
Mt. San Jacinto (Calif.) College transfer William Cunningham has seen limited time, but the senior defensive lineman and occasional fullback made his own impact off the field for the Blue Hawks.
“Willy is just a great person and one of our best weight-room guys,” Stanton said. “He does anything we ask. Once again, just a guy who is hard working, well driven and sincere.”
Moore’s time with the class taught him a very important lesson: push through adversity.
“A lot of tough lessons, but all the other guys had gone through it too,” Moore said. “It’s just kind of a real long process of growing throughout the five years that we’ve all been here.”
For the Blue Hawks’ game against Dakota State - the only NSAA team to beat Dickinson State all year - the entire defense and team as a whole will be available for the first time all season.
“It’s redemption,” Millay said. “I want to show them that we’re the team. It was very devastating, but it showed what will happen if we don’t play our hardest.”
At its best, Dickinson State has convincingly been the best NSAA team. The Blue Hawks have the NAIA’s best pass defense efficiency, fifth-best passing defense, eighth-best total defense and 10th best scoring defense. Junior safety Robert Nalewaja ranks No. 2 in the NAIA with six interceptions and junior running back Tray Boone is fifth in the nation with 129 rushing yards per game.
“When we first got (into college), it sure wasn’t looking that way,” Johnston said. “Coach Stanton, (offensive coordinator Jace Schillinger) and (linebackers coach Aric Mines) sure led the way on this whole resurgence and it’s paying off. It feels great.”
A big reason for the Blue Hawks’ success, Johnston said, is the seniors wanting to be a part of a team.
“The thing that I learned is that when the times get tough, the people who really matter are going to shine through,” he said. “The people who don’t matter are going to crumble and you’re not going to see them again. The ties I’ve gotten through football, that’s the people I want to be around.”
The biggest thing Millay learned, and most of these seniors have as well, is that football is a way of life.
A way of life that will end shortly for the 10 Dickinson State seniors.
“You learn so many different things, not just about football, but how to succeed in every aspect of your life, like how to push and keep striving,” Millay said. “Anything can happen. Look at us three years ago. We were in the lowest point of DSU history probably, and now we’re conference champs.
“You put in extra work and believe, good things are going to happen. Football has taught me that.”