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Rancher attitude

Harding County has a population of about 1,300 people. If a pair of former Harding County Ranchers football teammates are to be believed, that number is going to take a steep dive Saturday afternoon.

Dickinson State linebacker Jerel Hafner
Press Photo by Dustin Monke Dickinson State linebacker Jerel Hafner, right, goes after Valley City State quarterback Trent Kosel during a game on Sept. 26, 2009. Hafner is one of seven former Harding County (S.D.) High School players who play for either DSU or Black Hills State. The teams meet on Saturday afternoon.

Harding County has a population of about 1,300 people. If a pair of former Harding County Ranchers football teammates are to be believed, that number is going to take a steep dive Saturday afternoon.

Several northeastern South Dakota ranch country residents are expected to make the trip to the Badlands Activities Center, where Dickinson State will host Black Hills State in a key Dakota Athletic Conference game.

Many of those fans won't care who wins either. For the most part, they'll be cheering for defense, where former high school teammates Jerel Hafner and Forest Sainsbury are leaders for the Blue Hawks and Yellow Jackets defenses, respectively.

"I talked to my dad the other night and I think all of Harding County is coming up to this one," said Hafner, a junior offensive linebacker who plays for DSU with his younger brother Heath Hafner, a sophomore defensive tackle.

Sainsbury, a BHSU senior linebacker, plays alongside former Harding County standout Trent Turbiville, a sophomore linebacker.

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Sainsbury said he looks forward to playing DSU because gets a chance to face off against a close friend in Hafner and play in front of fans who used to watched them in Ranchers purple and gold.

"It's a lot more fun to play in front of your fans and people you know who have been supporting you your whole life," Sainsbury said.

Last season, the wind chill was near 0 when DSU visited Black Hills State in Spearfish, S.D.

That's only part of the reason Yellow Jackets head coach Jay Long said he won't forget the game. It was an exciting and dramatic 13-9 DSU victory, complete with a goal-line stand late in the fourth quarter.

Long, however, chooses a happier memory: a select group of rabid fans at Lyle Hare Stadium crowd.

"Harding County just brought down a ton of fans and all they did was cheer for defense," Long said. "No matter what side, they cheered for defense. It was funny."

Those fans weren't cheering for any slouches either.

Sainsbury is the Yellow Jackets' leading tackler and leads the NAIA with 12 tackles for a loss this season. Turbiville is fourth on the team with 25 tackles, and has an interception and 1½ sacks.

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Jerel Hafner leads DSU with two sacks and has 18 tackles despite playing much of the season with an AC joint sprain in his shoulder.

"I thought he had a lot of his old bounce back defensively last week and continues to get better," DSU head coach Hank Biesiot said.

Coaches know when they get players from Harding County, they're getting ones who won't let injuries slow them down too much.

They know they're getting players who have had toughness engrained in them from an early age.

"Everybody that comes from there is a ranch kid," Jerel Hafner said. "It's that mentality. Everybody just works hard from when they're young. Everybody is just tough."

It has shown on the gridiron.

Harding County has built a tradition as one of South Dakota's top 9-man programs.

In the past five years, the Ranchers have racked up a 41-8 record -- four of those losses came in one season -- and the latest team is sure to have DSU and BHSU coaches beating down their doors. They are unbeaten, ranked second in the Class A, 9-man poll and haven't allowed an offensive touchdown.

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DSU and BHSU already have a combined seven players from Harding County. Jay Wammen, the Ranchers' head coach, coached all of them but Sainsbury.

"They're all hard-nosed kids," Wammen said. "It's a different level at their college, but you can tell the work ethic they have. It's top-notch and that's probably why the coaches love 'em so much."

It's little wonder why Harding County players gravitate toward DSU and BHSU. The Ludlow, S.D., area, where the Hafners are from, is about 100 miles from both cities.

The players aren't just former teammates either. Some of them grew up as neighbors.

Turbiville's place is 2 miles south of the Hafner ranch while DSU redshirt freshman linebacker Hazer Burghduff lived 2 miles to the north.

Sainsbury grew up in Camp Crook, S.D., while DSU redshirt freshman defensive end Dalmin Gibson and BHSU redshirt freshman offensive lineman Sam Olson are from Buffalo, S.D., the county's seat.

Every one of those players, coaches say, ranks among the hardest workers on their respective teams.

"They bring a toughness," Long said. "Those kids from small towns -- especially ones like (in) Harding County -- they expect to win and they know how to work."

That attitude will be on display for a few hours Saturday in a game expected, as Sainsbury put it, "a hard-fought defensive battle."

No matter the outcome though, Jerel Hafner said fans should expect to see the Harding County boys seek each other out after the game.

"We're still pretty close, all of us," he said.

Related Topics: BLUE HAWKS
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