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Playoff football is back at the Alerus Center

GRAND FORKS, N.D. -- Former University of North Dakota quarterback Kelby Klosterman recalls 15 years ago, standing on the sideline as UC Davis quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan battled the Alerus Center noise in an NCAA Division II playoff semifinal.

GRAND FORKS, N.D. - Former University of North Dakota quarterback Kelby Klosterman recalls 15 years ago, standing on the sideline as UC Davis quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan battled the Alerus Center noise in an NCAA Division II playoff semifinal.

"I remember thinking how tough that would be," Klosterman said. "I was really glad I wasn't them."

The home-field advantage fueled a 14-2 win over UC Davis in 2001 and led to UND's first and only national championship the following week against Grand Valley State in Florence, Ala.

At 5 p.m. today, playoff football is back at the Alerus Center after a nine-year wait.

No. 7-seed UND (9-2 overall) hosts Richmond (9-3) in UND's first playoff game in the Division I era. The game can be seen on ESPN3, an online streaming service.

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As UND rebuilds a program that was 3-8 four years ago, the Fighting Hawks are hoping to recreate that Division II playoff atmosphere.

"I just remember playing in the game and even on first down, there was a wave of pressure that would hit you on the field when the crowd would stand up and get into it," former UND linebacker and current defensive coordinator Eric Schmidt said. "It was a big factor in us winning the football game."

Said former UND cornerback Dustin Thornburg: "What was cool about the playoffs is the crowd was so loud that every play felt more important than any other play. That was the biggest thing I remember in those games ... so many fans and the way that changes the atmosphere."

In the 2001 Division II semifinals, UC Davis was called for seven false starts as the more than 11,000 fans in attendance rattled the Aggies' future NFL quarterback O'Sullivan.

"It was an intelligent crowd," said the 37-year-old Klosterman, who now works in real estate in Austin, Texas. "When we were on offense, it was silent. When we were on defense, it was deafening."

The Alerus has been home for 10 UND playoff games, the last coming against Winona State in 2007, although perhaps none were as loud as the Davis game in 2001.

The building was in its first season and Klosterman says it's a big reason he picked UND out of Spearfish, S.D.

Klosterman, who gave Davis its only points when he intentionally took a safety in the final moments so the then-Sioux didn't have to punt from their own end zone, remembers the Davis team being tougher than he expected and probably more athletic than UND.

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"But I remember our defense was way more physical than they had ever seen," Klosterman said. "They were use to scoring so much, our defense deflated them. The crowd was a huge part in that game. Without the crowd, it definitely would have been a different story."

Thornburg, a Forest Lake, Minn., native who now owns a financial investing firm in Alexandria, Minn., had a key interception on Davis' first drive of the game, picking off a pass in the end zone preventing the Aggies from scoring despite having the ball with first-and-goal.

"I'm glad that happened to end the drive, because I came off a receiver earlier in the drive and messed up the assignment," said Thornburg, who had a school-record nine interceptions in 2001. "I remember the play. It was exciting. You have these guys you've been playing football with for four years and now you see them all run at you and excited and the crowd is going nuts ... it was a sense of relief and it was so exciting to celebrate with those guys in that moment."

Now, it's the 2016 UND team's turn to try to capture those moments.

"Playoff football is a lot of fun," said Schmidt, who had a school-record 11 sacks in 2001. "I can tell right now there's a difference in their step and a different look in their eye. (Tonight) will be something they've never experienced."

Schmidt isn't the only current staff member with ties to the 2001 game. UND head coach Bubba Schweigert was the program's defensive coordinator at the time.

Thornburg said those personal connections to the current team make it an exciting time as an alum.

"You feel a sense of pride in the university and the opportunities it gave you, so any news that's good, you get excited about," Thornburg said. "To have the opportunity to be back in the playoffs and knowing the excitement that generates for the current coaches and players ... it's the best. It's the best feeling that your alma mater that you're so connected to is relevant again after years of not being as competitive as we can be."

Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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