After watching the first weekend of the NDHSAA 9-man football playoffs take shape, the Hettinger/Scranton Night Hawks have dusted off their shoes and begun their preparations for their debut in this year’s playoffs.

The 9-man region 6 champions enjoyed the week off, but are excited to get back onto the field for their first home playoff game since 2016.

“Both communities are buzzing,” Hettinger/Scranton head coach Jason LeFebre said. “We got people talking about football that haven’t been talking about it in awhile and seeing faces at the field that haven’t been there. It’s nice to bring that atmosphere back to life.”

The joy surrounding the Night Hawks (6-2, 4-0) football team has been well documented, and it’s an energy that hasn’t been present in the southern part of North Dakota for quite some time.

2016 was also the Night Hawks’ most recent playoff appearance, where they lost to Crosby Divide County in the opening round. In 2015, Hettinger/Scranton reached the state semifinals, but lost to North Prairie 20-8.

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This time around, the Night Hawks will face fellow region 6 side Grant County/Flasher. The Storm (5-4, 2-2) took on South Border last week and beat them handily 32-14. Not to say Hettinger-Scranton would have preferred this matchup, but the Night Hawks did lose to South Border on Sept. 3, 26-8, and defeated Grant County/Flasher 44-22 on Sept. 10.

But that was early in the season. Both the Night Hawks and Storm are vastly different teams at this point in the season.

“They’re a completely different football team,” LeFebre said. “They’re super physical. They’ve changed a lot up front and know what they’re doing. They have tons of stars over there.”

LeFebre was able to go to the game for some early scouting and noted how tough they were on the defensive side of the ball. The Storm are on a three-game win streak, while the Night Hawks lost their last game of the regular season to Napoleon.

“We know how good South Border was,” LeFebre said. “For them to go out and do that shows what the coaches have done and the kids have been able to do in the last couple months. We’re expecting a battle.”

A common theme for Hettinger/Scranton throughout the season has been the growth of the players, who saw a lot of game time as freshman and have just now this season began to go up against players their same age.

Running backs Conner Andress and Tristan Pekas have been the driving force on offense for Hettinger/Scranton. Andress has amassed 955 yards and 10 touchdowns, with Pekas contributing 731 yards and 6 touchdowns.

It’s their hard-nosed running style that LeFebre loves and says is the key to their success.

“They’re tough to bring down, nobody likes to stand in front of them,” LeFebre said. “The more they start to hit you the more you second-guess if you want to hit them back. They’re just as punishing on defense as they are on offense. There’s not a whole lot of shiftiness, right-to-left, it’s straightforward and going through you.”

Quarterback Cade Warbis has commanded the offense so far with 474 yards passing and 7 touchdowns. Tight end Alex Martinez has been on the receiving end of three of them, a team-high.

On defense, a unit that allows 18.5 points per game, they have 18 takeaways; 7 fumbles and 11 interceptions. Defensive back Peyton Tuhy leads the way in interceptions with 4.

In the last matchup between Hettinger/Scranton and Grant County/Flasher, both Andress and Pekas eclipsed the 150-yard mark on the ground. Andress had 233 yards and Pekas had 159.

That control of the line of scrimmage will play a key role yet again in the Night Hawks quest of reaching the quarterfinals of the 9-man playoffs.

“The biggest thing is to win the front,” LeFebre said. “The other is making tackles and keeping everything in front of us. Our mantra has been ‘bend, don’t break,’ make them make mistakes and keep them in front.”