Warriors improved during 3-6 season

Jeremy Nordick thought the United North Central football team had the talent to contend for the Prairie North Conference title and win at least one game in the Section 8AA playoffs.

Brady Yrjo
Quarterback Brady Yrjo capped off his senior season by completing 112 of 224 passes for 1,683 yards and 12 touchdowns for the Warriors this season. (Photo by Vance Carlson / Enterprise)

Jeremy Nordick thought the United North Central football team had the talent to contend for the Prairie North Conference title and win at least one game in the Section 8AA playoffs.

The Warriors, who went 0-4 outside the conference, did challenge for the Prairie North Conference title before settling for second place with a 3-1 record. Unfortunately in the section playoffs, UNC was seeded No. 8 and had to face No. 1 Pelican Rapids in the first round. Pelican Rapids, which was rated No. 9 in the final state Class AA poll, ended the Warriors' season with a 56-20 victory.

UNC opened the season with losses to Browerville (40-22), Royalton (45-6) and Upsala/Swanville Area (24-6). The Warriors gained 228 yards against Browerville, 112 yards against Royalton and 219 yards against Upsala while allowing 448 yards to Browerville, 446 yards to Royalton and 247 yards to Upsala.

The Warriors followed an 8-6 win over Pillager with a 42-40 overtime loss to Osakis to stand at 1-4 on the season. UNC gained 306 yards while allowing 217 yards in the Pillager win while compiling 337 yards and allowing 473 yards in the loss to Osakis.

A 34-21 win over Parkers Prairie and a 30-12 win over New York Mills lifted UNC to 3-0 in conference play. The Warriors had their two best offensive outputs in those two games, compiling 414 yards in offense against Parkers Prairie and 473 yards in offense against New York Mills. UNC's defense allowed 318 yards to Parkers Prairie and 380 yards to New York Mills.


Ottertail Central claimed the conference title with a 35-14 win in Week 7. OTC compiled 416 yards in offense while holding the Warriors to 271 yards.

In the section playoff opener, Pelican Rapids racked up 572 yards in offense while holding UNC to 170 yards in offense to advance.

"Overall I felt that we really had some great opportunities that we missed out on that would have reversed our 3-6 record. I thought there were three games that we left some plays on the field that I know the guys wish they had back," said Nordick. "Early in the season we knew we had a bunch of seniors, but still a lot of inexperience. We focused on getting better and better each week in practice and each game night. I thought the kids did a real nice job of progressing throughout the season. We had some fun, exciting moments throughout the year. The last few games, aside from Pelican Rapids, I thought we were as good as anybody that we played. I'm glad our guys had the opportunity to play (against Pelican Rapids) in that type of atmosphere. I really feel we learned a lot in just two hours of football that night."

Leading the Warriors were the nine players who earned all-conference honors: seniors Zach Nevala, Nate Braith, Mike Hepola, Brady Yrjo, Andy Floyd, Brandon Mickelson and Josh Meech, and juniors Alex Brockpahler and Josh Kinnunen. Nevala, Braith, Hepola and Brockpahler were all-conference selections while the other five received all-conference honorable mention honors.

Nevala and Braith solidified the offensive and defensive lines. Hepola, Floyd, Kinnunen and Meech were among the team's leading tacklers at linebacker. Brockpahler was the Warriors' leading receiver and started at defensive back. Yrjo was the starting quarterback. Mickelson was the Warriors' second-leading receiver.

Yrjo completed 112 of 224 passes for 1,683 yards and 12 touchdowns. Brockpahler (64 catches for 1,010 yards and 10 TDs) and Mickelson (30 catches for 591 yards and two TDs) were Yrjo's primary receivers. Meech rushed for 50 yards and three TDs. Brockpahler also returned one punt and one kickoff for touchdowns while leading the Warriors in scoring with 76 points.

Defensively, Hepola (108 tackles, including a team-leading 53 solo tackles), Kinnunen (82 tackles), Floyd (77 tackles), Nevala (67 tackles), Meech (66 tackles) and Brockpahler (58 tackles) led the way.

Sophomore Tom Gruchow was the Warriors' leading rusher with 158 carries for 533 yards and three TDs and finished second in points with 36. Senior Justin Kinnunen (eight catches for 97 yards), junior Taylor Pederson (six catches for 60 yards) and senior Ethan Puttonen (six catches for 50 yards) were also key receivers.


Other key players on defense were senior Craig Thompson (42 tackles), senior Trent Hillukka (39 tackles), Braith (39 tackles), senior Brock Clements (33 tackles), senior Justin Kinnunen (28 tackles), sophomore Kasey Tyge (27 tackles), Gruchow (24 tackles), sophomore Andy Cushman (23 tackles), Puttonen (22 tackles), senior Tyler Hillukka (19 tackles), junior Casey Strayer (17 tackles), Pederson (15 tackles) and junior Ethan Huttonen (15 tackles).

Brockpahler led the Warriors with three of the team's eight interceptions. Hepola had a team-leading three quarterback sacks while Josh Kinnunen had the lone defensive touchdown with an interception return.

Team awards went to Gruchow (Offensive Back of the Year and Most Improved Offensive Player), Brockpahler (Receiver of the Year and Defensive Back of the Year), Braith (Offensive Lineman of the Year), Hepola (Linebacker of the Year), Nevala (Defensive Lineman of the Year), Josh Kinnunen (Most Improved Defensive Player) and Tyge (Special Teams Player of the Year).

"The seniors that we graduate will be greatly missed. They were around as sophomores to help get United North Central started. They have taken a lot of pride in putting the black and gold on the map and to start a program that we hope will build a solid football tradition in years to come," said Nordick. "From a football aspect, I think they really had hoped for more, but sometimes the ball just doesn't bounce your way and we couldn't get the big break this year. They really set a great example for our younger guys for how you are supposed to prepare in practice and get yourself mentally ready to play."

Looking ahead to next season, the Warriors will have to replace 17 talented seniors. However, Nordick believes UNC returns plenty of talented players to make another run at winning the conference title and advancing in the playoffs.

"Looking ahead, the expectations really don't change much. We have a higher expectation of these guys getting in the weight room every day in the summer, going to individual and team camps, becoming students of the game, and becoming the best player they can possibly be so they can help their team win next fall," said Nordick. "We hold high expectations for the future. There is a ton of talent that we return across the board. We just need to focus on getting bigger, stronger and faster. I know that our young guys are really looking forward to getting next season going. The seniors will be missed, but there is a bright future for United North Central Warriors football."

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