There was bound to be plenty of buzz surrounding Northern State football this fall with the brand new state-of-the-art Dacotah Bank Stadium. It’s what’s happening on the field, however, that has gained the attention of those around the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
The Wolves have won three straight games after a season-opening setback to Minnesota State and are tied for first place in the NSIC North Division. While that may have caught a few people off guard, it did not shock those within the program.
“It’s not a surprise to us where we’re at,” said first-year Northern coach Mike Schmidt. “In a lot of ways we’re probably disappointed that we didn’t win that Mankato game.”
Schmidt has managed to blend together a variety of playmakers who came to NSU from other programs with a core group of holdovers that have been with the Wolves the entire way.
“We knew we had a good base and a good nucleus here at Northern when we got here. It was kind of an interesting situation to walk into,” Schmidt said. “Most of the time you kind of clean house. You get rid of coaches, you get rid of players who are there. You kind of start fresh and you rebuild and it might take a year or two to kind of get your feet underneath you. We kind of took the other approach.”
The other approach was trying to mesh the two groups together to get the best of both worlds. It’s safe to say so far it is working.
“We have two coaches and a whole host of players that are still with us. So we knew we had a good nucleus here that we can build around, but we also know what it takes to win,” Schmidt said. “I think that’s probably my biggest strength as a head coach and the staff that we have here is understanding just the metrics of playmakers in football. We knew we needed to bring in some high-level players to help us win.”
Those players include the likes Division I transfers Dewaylon Ingram who came in from Sam Houston State, Jimmy Kepouros who came from North Dakota State, and Nate Robinson who joined the Wolves from Miami of Ohio.
Schmidt said the biggest key to making it work is players from previous Northern squads being receptive to others coming in.
“We’re not just bringing in players to take people’s spots,” Schmidt said. “We brought in players to help us win.”
Schmidt pointed to the attitude and character of Dakota Larson, a key receiver who was a member of previous Northern teams, along with other Wolves who remained with the program.
“Dakota Larson goes off and has the big game in week one and then really doesn’t’ get a whole lot of targets. But in the second and third games against Southwest and Upper (Iowa), his touchdowns in the second half were crucial in those games,” Schmidt said. “To have a player stay focused, to not get distracted, to not get down, to not pout after not getting the ball, especially in the playmaker spot on offense, that speaks to his character so much. That’s all those guys.”
Schmidt said having players buy into the fact that others are pushing each other to make each other better has been crucial.
He noted that players are working hard to make sure they earn their spots on the field.
“They have tremendous mindsets and tremendous character. That’s why you’re seeing us win games. We have this really unique combination,” Schmidt said. “As the head coach I kind of knew that was my job this whole time. This is what I’ve done in my career. I’ve been a builder everywhere I’ve been. I’ve watched what it takes to turn programs around. It’s not just culture, it’s trying to get with each player individually to understand what their role is and then how can we meld and gel this thing all together?”
The Wolves host Mary at 2 p.m. on Saturday at Dacotah Bank Stadium. It did not take very long for Northern to adapt to its new home.
“We figured out the choreography of game day and we were really able to use it as a home field advantage,” Schmidt said. “That is going to be one the biggest home field advantages in all of Division II football. We take it pretty seriously that we want to win every single time that we show up in that stadium.”
While Northern is off to a solid start, Schmidt and the Wolves are not content with that. They want to keep building momentum and finish off the season by generating even more buzz around the league.
“We have a team that’s fun to watch. That was our job, to bring in entertaining football, bring in competitive football,” Schmidt said. “It’s been a while since Northern’s been a playoff contender. I think we have a true playoff contender right now. We came here to flip the NSIC upside down year one, not in 10 years. That’s what we’re trying to do right now.”
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