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Talented underclassmen must step up for UNC football team

     After graduating 15 seniors, Jeremy Nordick is counting on some talented underclassmen to lead the United North Central football team to a successful season.

     The Warriors finished third in the Prairie North Conference with a 3-2 record and finished with a 4-6 overall mark. UNC was the No. 4 seed for the Section 8AA playoffs and opened with a 38-0 win over No. 5 Bagley before being eliminated by No. 1 Hawley 42-12 in the semifinals. Hawley was rated No. 3 in the state Class AA poll and won the Section 8AA title.

     Nordick will have to replace a talented group of players that included Taylor Carlson, Dylan Huttunen, Tristan Kjellberg, Bob Lusti, Ray Mueller, Kieler Skaro, Tanner Neisess, Wyatt Puttonen and Jordan Miller. Carlson, Kjellberg and Lusti were all-section players and were joined by Huttunen on the all-conference team. The other five earned all-conference honorable mention honors.

     Carlson was the starting quarterback who completed 73 of 167 passes for 1,047 yards and 13 TDs while adding 29 tackles.

     Kjellberg led the team in rushing with 142 carries for 651 yards and a TD while catching 19 passes for 271 yards and three TDs in scoring 46 points. Kjellberg also had 14 tackles.

     Skaro was the Warriors’ top receiver, catching 27 passes for 537 yards and six TDs. Huttunen rushed 70 times for 222 yards and two TDs while tallying 36 tackles.  Puttonen rushed six times for 32 yards and had 22 tackles.

     Lusti, Mueller, Neisess and Miller solidified the offensive line with Lusti (52 tackles) and Neisess (32 tackles) leading the defense.

     The Warriors also have to replace Jordan Yliniemi, an all-conference honorable mention player who moved to Park Rapids. Yliniemi was second on the team in rushing with 58 carries for 241 yards and a TD.

     Being counted on to lead the Warriors are the four returning starters: seniors Tristan Palmer, Alex Schwartz and Austen Schwartz and junior Tommy Tellers.

     Palmer (6-3, 200 pounds) will be the leader on the offensive line while Tellers (6-0, 160) returns at wide receiver after catching 15 passes for 283 yards and four TDs a year ago.

     Looking to fill the other starting spots on offense are seniors Tyler Eckman (5-9, 150) at quarterback and Austen Schwartz (5-9, 160) at running back; junior Thane Dailey (6-0, 165) at wide receiver; sophomores Kirby Hrdlicka (5-11, 165) at halfback, Colt Hansen (6-0, 185) at tight end, George Lausten (6-1, 185) at running back and Caleb Puttonen (5-10, 155) at quarterback or running back; and freshman James Clark (5-10, 155) at running  back. Joining Palmer on the line will be Alex Schwartz (6-4, 285) and fellow seniors Kody Kocurek (6-1, 185), Jeff Erickson (5-8, 150) and Jacob Shepersky (5-11, 240). Providing depth will be juniors Andrew Rockensock (5-10, 160) at quarterback and running back, Charles Haataja (5-9, 160) at wide receiver and Lynard Wright (6-0, 165) at running back. Sophomores Hunter Roberts (6-0, 200), Cameron Graba (5-9, 165), Kaleb Putzke (6-0, 170) and Canton Matson (5-10, 175) will provide depth on the line.

     On defense, the Warriors return Palmer at end, Tellers at defensive back, Alex Schwartz at tackle and Austen Schwartz at defensive back. Palmer had 21 tackles, Tellers made 20 tackles, Austen Schwartz was in on 13 tackles and Alex Schwartz had three tackles.

     The other players competing for starting spots are Kocurek, Shepersky, Roberts, Graba, Putzke and Mattson up front; Eckman, Erickson, Hrdlicka, Hansen and Lausten at linebacker; and Dailey, Puttonen and Clark in the secondary.

     Rounding out the roster are sophomores Jake Clements (5-9, 155 wide receiver/defensive back), Benjamin Johnson (5-5, 120 wide receiver/defensive back), Ethan Boyer (5-9, 165 wide receiver/defensive back) and Damon Howard (5-10, 160 wide receiver/defensive back); and freshmen Alex Cheney (5-0, 155 wide receiver/defensive back), Clayton Novak (5-7, 140 wide receiver/defensive back), Cade Lacoe (5-9, 160 quarterback/linebacker), Jack Lillquist (6-5, 160 tight end/defensive lineman), Owen Anderson (5-10, 160 running back/linebacker), Tyler Thomas (5-9, 155 wide receiver/defensive back) and Caleb Mostrom (5-9, 180 lineman).

     “We’re very short on numbers, so this year could be interesting. We graduated 15 seniors so we’ve got many areas to replace. We will look to our seniors to lead us into the season and we’ve got some talented underclassmen that have looked great in practice,” said Nordick, who will be assisted by Lee Shepersky, Steve Bruer and Randy Thompson. “Needless to say, we’re very young and inexperienced. The great thing, though, is that this is a very positive, coachable and hard-working group. We’ve had very productive practices and we’re looking to improve every day. We’re relying on many players to step up for us. It’s hard to say who exactly will be starting for us our first game because we’ve had plenty of competition in some spots. We’ve also had to move some guys around and play positions they’ve never played. Right now we’re looking for the right mix that will work together to move the football for us.”

     Even though the Warriors feature an inexperienced group, Nordick is counting on his team to improve and put a competitive team on the field.

     “The expectation is that we continue to work and grow as a group,” said Nordick. “We’ve sacrificed some time to get stronger in the weight room and we feel if we make that commitment, it will pay off for us in the long run. I think to compete in a very tough and physical conference, we will need to take advantage of every opportunity at practice to get better.”