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Warriors expect to outwork opposition

Senior quarterback James Clark (2) returns to lead the United North Central offense this season. Vance Carlson / Enterprise

With nine players returning who started games last season, head coach Jeremy Nordick is expecting the United North Central football team to once again put a competitive team on the field.

The offense has nine veteran players back in seniors James Clark (quarterback), Owen Anderson (running back), Caleb Mostrom (lineman) and Justen Berttunen (lineman); juniors Mason Dailey (wide receiver), Jared Seibert (lineman) and Brady Vry (lineman); and sophomores Brandon Miller (running back) and Tristan Aho (wide receiver).

Clark completed 21 of 48 passes for 337 yards and five touchdowns and rushed 56 times for 496 yards and four TDs in five games last season. Anderson (who earned Section 8AA and Midwest Blue District honors) led the Warriors with 22 receptions for 229 yards and three TDs while rushing 41 times for 170 yards. Miller caught 11 passes for 70 yards and two TDs. Dailey had six receptions for 136 yards and two TDs.

On defense, the Warriors will be led by Clark (11 solo tackles), Anderson (37 solo tackles, 13 sacks), Mostrom (23 solo tackles) and Miller (13 solo tackles) at linebacker; Berttunen (21 solo tackles) and Vry on the line; Dailey (15 solo tackles) at defensive back; and junior Zach Floyd (28 solo tackles) at free safety.

The Warriors have several key spots to replace with the graduation of Kirby Hrdlicka, Caleb Puttonen, George Lausten, Al Pietila, Colt Hansen and Canton Matson. That group led UNC to a share of fourth place in the district standings with a 3-3 record while going 5-5 overall after a 30-14 win over Warroad and a 32-0 loss to Barnesville in the Section 8AA playoffs. Hansen was also an all-section player and joined Lausten and Matson in earning all-district honors.

Hrdlicka led the Warriors by rushing 144 times for 704 yards and seven TDs while adding eight receptions for 66 yards and one TD. Hrdlicka also had 25 solo tackles. Puttonen completed 40 of 95 passes for 352 yards and five TDs and rushed 36 times for 76 yards and three TDs while making 28 solo tackles. Lausten rushed 53 times for 174 yards and two TDs and had 29 solo tackles. Pietila caught eight passes for 164 yards and two TDs and rushed 26 times for 85 yards while making 35 tackles. Hansen and Matson led the offensive and defensive lines with Hansen leading the team with 60 solo tackles and Matson following with 34 solo tackles.

"On both sides of the ball, we graduated some key seniors that accounted for a lot of production over the years," said Nordick. "However, we bring back a lot of experience with nine guys that started last year at some point on offense and eight guys on defense."

Looking to replace that group and provide depth on offense will be seniors Jack Lillquist (wide receiver), Cade Lacoe (wide receiver), Bridger Bettin (lineman) and Anthony Juntunen (lineman); juniors Brock Kako (lineman), Isaac Tellers (wide receiver), Morgan Olson (running back) and Gator Bettin (lineman); and sophomores Jonah Howard (running back) and Tyce Lee (wide receiver).

Defensively, Lacoe (linebacker), Bridger Bettin (linebacker), Juntunen (lineman), Seibert (lineman), Olson (linebacker), Tellers (defensive back), Gator Bettin (lineman), Howard (linebacker) and Aho (linebacker) will join juniors Brett Pinoniemi (defensive back) and Mason Bradley (lineman) as regular contributors.

Rounding out the varsity roster are seniors Toby Hintzman (lineman/linebacker) and Grant Tolkkinen (wide receiver/defensive back); junior Blake Schoon (wide receiver/linebacker); sophomores Wade Berttunen (wide receiver/defensive back), Ethan Simon (tight end/lineman), Tater Butler (lineman), Dan Horn (lineman), Devan Leritz (lineman), Keaton Schoon (lineman), Keegan Heegard (wide receiver/defensive back) and Casey Fitzpatrick (lineman); and freshmen Mason Heino (wide receiver/defensive back), Charlie Hodge (quarterback/linebacker), Hunter Skaro (wide receiver/defensive back), Dakota Meech (running back/linebacker), Rashad Lincoln (wide receiver/defensive back) and Gavin Ament (lineman).

"It's a new season of new expectations. We've got some talented athletes and experience across the board, but we're doing some new things offensively and defensively. Some of the guys may have to learn a new position pending on formation and scheme. So far, that transition has been fairly smooth with a few learning errors that will be corrected as we progress through fall camp," said Nordick. "The thing I like about this team is that many of them are selfless. They're willing to change positions as long as it helps the team win. There is a ton of competition in camp with guys battling for spots. It makes for some high energy and competitive practices."

Nordick is hoping that competition will help the Warriors battle defending champion Ottertail Central (5-1 in the district and 8-3 overall) for top honors in the district, which also features Staples-Motley (4-2 in the district and 5-5 overall), Wadena-Deer Creek (3-3 in the district and 3-6 overall), Long Prairie-Grey Eagle (0-6 in the district and 0-9 overall), Pillager and West Central Area. Pillager (6-0 in the Northwest White District and 11-1 overall) and West Central Area (2-5 in the Mid State Sub 3 District and 2-7 overall) are new to the district while Osakis (5-1 in the district and 8-3 overall) moved to the Mid State Sub 2 District this season. Frazee (1-5 in the district and 1-8 overall) won't field a varsity team this season because of low numbers.

In the section, Nordick sees Barnesville (11-1 last season), Hawley (7-4) and Bagley (7-3) as the teams to beat. Crookston (2-7), Roseau (which went 0-9 in Section 8AAA) and Warroad (4-5) round out the section. Barnesville defeated Hawley 24-14 in last year's section championship game.

"Our district is wide open and there are some teams with plenty of talent coming back in our section," said Nordick, who will be assisted by Charlie Hrdlicka, Kevin Sommers, Randy Thompson and Lee Shepersky. "The goal is to stay healthy, find a strong physical identity and outwork anyone we play. If we do those things, we should be tough to beat."