Freshman football team has year to remember
As it is oft to do in North Dakota, wind blows in gusts as I wait in my pickup truck at Sheyenne Ninth Grade Center. A flock of Canada geese, their heads tucked deep into folded wings, rest along the edge of a nearby pond. Corn husks and bits of debris tumble across the closely-mown turf of the adjoining football field.
Soon, students filter out of the school and into awaiting yellow buses, diesel engines rumbling. They quickly fill, and the vehicles file out.
When all is quiet - save for the relentless wind that rocks the cab and nearly lulls me to sleep - a door on the west side of the building opens. Boys in their early teens drag out pads and helmets to finish dressing on the sidewalk.
They don't know it yet, but in a few days West Fargo will host Grand Forks Central and beat them 52-8. The resulting win culminates a second-straight undefeated season for the freshman football team. The Packers averaged nearly 52 points per game while allowing a combined total of 76 points against - or less than 10 points per game.
Today is Friday, however, and the big game is Monday. Only one more practice to get things right: one more day to make it a perfect season.
They head to the football field en masse, some jogging, others walking; but most talking or laughing. One guy grabs a football and steadies it a ways out from the field goal. Another player runs up and attempts an extra point.
It's good - albeit helped by the relentless wind.
It's also cold, and a few Packers decided it's best to dress in layers. Others try toughing it out, their skin turning pink against the brunt of the wind.
Three men huddle near the goal post, chatting. One is dressed in a long green Packers parka; every time he turns his back to the wind, the hood blows up.
I introduce myself to the three adults and the man in the parka shakes my hand and smiles.
"Nice to meet you," Coach Brent Lundgren says. Then he waves a player over from the group.
"This is the guy I was telling you about," the coach says.
Samuel Olsen jogs over and shakes my hand, too. I ask him why he thinks his team is doing so well this year.
"We get along good," he says.
So you gel well? Everyone is friends?
"Yeah," Olson, nods. He turns to his coach. "I'm going to get out there and try to get in some passes."
The coach sends him along.
"Alright," Lundgren yells, trying to speak loud enough to be heard in the blustery conditions. "Let's get going."
The players break up into groups. The man who got them started, Lundgren, meets up with the offense.
He looks at me.
"Watch this," he says.
Lundgren barks an order and the players shift in unison. The quarterback commands the line, then huts. It's easy to tell they've done this before. The QB fakes a handoff to a running back in motion before pitching it to the second back. He drives to the edge of the field, stops, then throws the ball straight down field to a receiver near the end zone.
The next group of players lines up and repeats the drill.
Over and over.
"Reps, reps, reps, reps," Lundgren says. "You only learn by doing."
It would be easy to brush off the mechanical precision of the freshman. After all, it is only a practice. Plus, they've been at it for an entire season.
But a curious thing happens to the players: they're smiling. While huffing down the field and running lines and heaving balls and getting beat up, they're enjoying themselves. There does not seem to be fear of making mistakes. The kids are relaxed; loose.
"Our real objective for the players is: to learn football, have fun, and learn some things about life along the way," Lundgren says.
He's also quick to point out that it's not just one guy steering the ship.
"Your success as a coach is a direct reflection of all of the coaches," Lundgren says.
The Packers have plenty of them, too. The West Fargo freshman team boasted seven coaches whom contributed to the success of the season.
Jim Thomas, Pat Johnson, Mike Giddings, Darin Bardal, Caleb Johnson and Shane Stephenson all made their marks.
And while he's quick to point to the other coaches for their influences, Lundgren is just as quick to list his players and their strengths and weaknesses.
The entire team made noise this season. Standouts such as Olsen, Jacob Hoy, Tony Nichols, Zach Larson, Zach Mohs, Jared Marthe, Ray Boe, Austin Bonnema and Melvin Collins certainly bode well for future Packer varsity teams. In most of the freshman team's games this year, however, they only needed to play the first half, if that.
For instance, during their final game of the year, the coaches began running second stringers by the second quarter. And by the final half, they'd gone through the entire lineup.
The difference between West Fargo and their other teams is noticeable beside the scoreboard. Players are in sync, fluid; they run routes that their opponents don't know.
The key is that the coaching staff teaches their players the same plays they'll be using at the varsity level.
"Now, for next year, they really won't have to learn a whole lot of new terminology," Lundgren says.
Having back-to-back undefeated seasons doesn't happen often, and the West Fargo coaching staff knows that. This was a unique year, and watching those players grow and possibly transition to the next level as they work through the system is an exciting prospect.
And after so much positives from the year, it's also a bit tough to let go.
"Awesome team of kids," Lundgren says. "Already starting to miss them."