Two players on the West Fargo High School football team are preparing for the biggest game of their careers on Friday. In 11 weeks, the team has come a long way from their first game this year, and has outpaced last fall's 2-7 overall finish.
The Packers captured the No. 3 East Region seed and earned a trip to the Nov. 8 semifinals. After missing the postseason last year, Friday’s contest will be junior Carter Birrenkott and sophomore Carson Hegerle’s first taste of second-round playoffs.
“No games have compared to this game Friday,” Hegerle said. “It's a whole different feeling from every other (football) game that I’ve ever played in.”
There’s an added intensity to Friday’s Class 3A state semifinal matchup. The Packers face crosstown rival West Fargo Sheyenne. The Mustangs posted a 21-6 win over the Packers earlier this season, but longtime West Fargo head coach Jay Gibson thinks his team is playing really well during the time “you want to play well.”
The 6-foot-3 Birrenkott has largely contributed to his team’s success. He recently set the school record for career interceptions with 12 — splitting six between the two seasons he’s been in the lineup.
“Carter doesn't come off the field. I don't know if he's been off the field,” Gibson, who is in his 29th season of coaching the Packers, said. “We've had a couple games where we've gotten ahead and we've taken him out, but he plays offense, he plays defense, he plays on every special team; which is another attribute to his athleticism because he can fit into all those different areas.”
Hegerle, a 6-foot-2 receiver, may soon join him at the top of the record books. Hegerle, who has 40 receptions this year for 516 yards, is two catches away from a Packers season record. And he may very well be on his way to breaking it Friday.
“Carson is the same way,” Gibson said. “Those guys help us on offense, they help us on defense, and then they help us on special teams.”
Hegerle and Birrenkott, who has also shined as a receiver this year with 407 receiving yards, are two of four Packers players who rarely come off the field. Gibson said he’s indebted to those guys.
“We don't have enough depth where, I mean if we go to the next level, there's just no one as good as those two,” Gibson said. “They have to be on the field.”
Birrenkott didn’t realize he had broken the school record until well after last week’s quarterfinal win against Bismarck High (40-21).
“It felt pretty good. I was just focused on the game, but then after the game you just kind of think about it,” Birrenkott said. “It feels good to have your name in the records.”
Birrenkott, 17, is following in the footsteps of his dad, Mike, who has held a couple Packers basketball records of his own.
“He keeps up with a bunch of stats, and he was the one who actually told me I was getting close on the record,” Birrenkott said of his dad. “So yeah, he's proud.”
Hegerle hadn’t heard he was nearing a school record until a couple days ago. He hasn’t thought about it too much, and said he’s more focused on the game Friday. But still, it feels pretty good, he said.
After missing the playoffs last year from a state championship title the season before, Hegerle and Birrenkott share the excitement of making it to their first postseason.
“Last year was hard for the team. We didn’t play that well,” Birrenkott said. “And then this year, it feels good to be a winning team and in a good spot to go to the championship game.”
“It feels really good after a tough season last year, and just being able to work our way back this year,” Hegerle added. “And just do it for the seniors that graduated last year and do it for the seniors this year.”
One of those seniors is quarterback Dustin Mertz, a converted wide receiver, who threw for 309 yards on 19 of 26 passing against Bismarck last Friday.
“I think our defense has really stepped up this year from last year. And also our line on both sides has been really great,” Hegerle said. “Our quarterback Dustin Mertz has been able to get our receivers the ball, and has helped me get a lot of receptions and just make plays.”
Gibson said Mertz is doing a wonderful job of getting the ball right on the money. And Birrenkott and Hegerle are the beneficiaries of having a quarterback that can throw.
“You know it took him a while to learn the quarterback position, and the quarterback position, especially if it’s your first year at it, the learning curve is extremely steep. And he's an intelligent guy,” Gibson said. “He has really come through.”
Looking ahead to Friday, the Packers will spark their rivalry with the Mustangs once more.
“Obviously, there's nerves and excitement. But no matter who it is, you don't want to go home in the playoffs,” Birrenkott said. “And having it be a rival, it puts a little extra excitement to the game.”
With a trip to the Dakota Bowl on the line, Birrenkott said Friday’s game brings more intensity, knowing that it's do or die and his team’s season is at risk.
Gibson said their opponent, the top-seeded Mustangs, have more to lose.
“The pressure is on them. They should beat us by 30 points,” he said. “We don't have any pressure. We have an opportunity to play another game. You know, there's only four teams left. So it's pretty special to get this far.”
Ahead of the semifinal matchup, Gibson said his players planned to keep plugging away.
“It's a goal. You pat yourself on the back for about five minutes and you go back to work because you got to try to figure out a way to stop that scrum offense that they run,” he said of making it to the semis.
West Fargo will have to stop run-heavy Sheyenne’s ball carriers, Gibson said. But the Mustangs, who have tallied the most team points of any East Region team, also have a great receiver in North Dakota State commit Tyler Terhark, Gibson said.
Earlier this season, Sheyenne recorded 654 yards of total offense during the Sept. 27 game against West Fargo. The Packers had 253.
“They can pass the ball, too. So they actually have more balance. Fundamentally, they're unbelievable on defense,” Gibson said.
Despite the rivalry, Gibson said he likes watching the Mustangs because they line up perfectly and do their assignments.
The Packers (6-4) faced two tough teams in their opening contests of the season. West Fargo fell to Mandan in the Packers’ season opener, and lost to undefeated and top-seeded Bismarck Century the following week.
“Our four losses were to really good teams,” Gibson said. "And as the year went on, we got closer; the Davies game was only a four-point game.”
Gibson said his players have gathered some confidence over the course of the season. The Packers have gone 6-2, including a current three-game winning streak, since losing their first two games.
“I just think as a team, everyone's kind of doing their job, they trust each other. Trust is a big thing in football. You have responsibilities, you just need to do your responsibilities,” he said. “And when you start trusting that, then you're doing your job. As two or three more guys kind of learned about the game of football, they just got better and better.”
Birrenkott said the bunch is tight-knit this year.
“We all believe in each other. So we get on the field, just play together, play as a family and just play football,” Birrenkott said.