Jeremy Nordick thought the United North Central football team had enough talent to contend for the Midwest Blue District and Section 8AA titles this season.
The Warriors were living up to that potential before a couple key injuries sidetracked the season.
UNC opened the season with a 22-0 win over Park Rapids, a 44-8 victory over West Central Area and a 42-12 win over Wadena-Deer Creek. The Warriors held halftime leads in the next two games before Pillager rallied from an 8-0 deficit for a 22-14 victory in Week 4 and Staples-Motley rallied from an 18-7 deficit for a 21-18 victory in Week 5. Junior tackle Brady Vry suffered a season-ending injury in the Pillager game while senior tackle Justen Berttunen suffered a season-ending injury in the Staples-Motley game.
UNC ended the regular season with a 14-0 win over Long Prairie-Grey Eagle, a 48-18 loss to Ottertail Central and a forfeit win over Frazee for a 5-3 record and the No. 5 seed for the section playoffs. No. 4 Warroad prevailed with a 26-20 victory in the section quarterfinals to end the Warriors' season at 5-4.
"Going into the season we had very high expectations and goals. Early in the season I felt we were well on our way to competing for the district and section championships. We had a couple of tough losses against Pillager and Staples-Motley that could have gone either way. We did have some bad luck losing a couple of great football players for the year in each one of those games, but I was pleased with how their backups came in and still gave us a chance to win," said Nordick. "Down the stretch of the year we had to move a number of guys around to try and give us the best chance to win come playoff time. We were disappointed with the way things ended, but our coaches and kids did a great job putting things together in such a short amount of time."
Leading the Warriors this season were the 25 letterwinners: Berttunen and fellow seniors Owen Anderson, Anthony Juntunen and Grant Tolkkinen; juniors Zach Floyd, Brock Kako, Brett Pinoniemi and Mason Bradley; and sophomores Tristan Aho and Jonah Howard from Menahga; and seniors James Clark, Caleb Mostrom, Cade LaCoe, Bridger Bettin, Jack Lillquist and Toby Hintzman; Vry and fellow juniors Mason Dailey, Jared Seibert, Gator Bettin, Isaac Tellers, Morgan Olson and Blake Schoon; and sophomores Brandon Miller and Tyce Lee from Sebeka. Anderson, Berttunen, Clark and Mostrom served as captains.
Clark and Anderson received Section 8AA honors and joined Mostrom and Seibert on the Midwest Blue District team. Floyd, Vry and Berttunen were all-district honorable mention players.
Clark led the Warriors' offense at quarterback, completing 48 of 119 passes for 810 yards and two touchdowns and rushing 141 times for 814 yards and 19 TDs in scoring 130 points to earn team Offensive MVP honors.
Anderson rushed 68 times for 251 yards and caught four passes for 46 yards as a running back. Floyd was the Warriors' top running back, rushing 59 times for 383 yards and four TDs while catching six passes for 37 yards and a TD in scoring 34 points.
Also contributing on offense were Lillquist (14 receptions for 258 yards), Aho (10 receptions for 201 yards), Dailey (10 receptions for 200 yards and a TD), Tellers (five receptions for 68 yards), Pinoniemi (three caries for 82 yards and one TD) and Olson (two carries for 8 yards).
The other starters on offense were Kako at left guard, Mostrom at center, Seibert at right guard, and Gator Bettin and Hintzman at the tackles.
Defensively, Berttunen, Seibert, Vry, Kako and Hintzman started on the line; Clark, Mostrom, Floyd, Olson and Aho started at linebacker; Tolkkinen and Pinoniemi were the backs; and Dailey started at safety.
Anderson and Mostrom shared team Defensive MVP honors while Floyd, Gator Bettin, Kako and Olson received Most Improved Player honors.
Despite graduating several key players, Nordick is looking for the Warriors to produce another successful season in 2018.
"Our seniors sacrificed so much and worked so hard the last four years to be successful. I wish things would have turned out different for them, but sometimes that's how things work out in high school sports. They all made a huge impact on the program and won a lot of football games throughout their careers. I'm extremely proud of all of them and they will certainly be missed. They will go out with a winning season and have helped create a winning culture," said Nordick. "Looking at next fall, we've got a lot of talent coming back. I think every coach tells their young guys coming back that they absolutely have to get in the weight room to be successful. That is no different for the future Warriors. We have to get in the weight room and get bigger, stronger and faster to continue the winning tradition. If we choose not to do this, then we will not be where we expect to be and that's competing for a section championship. The top two teams in our section every year are Hawley and Barnesville. Their kids have made the choice to get bigger, faster and stronger. Our kids need to do the same, and more, to be in the mix with those two teams. We will see if the Warriors are willing to work in the offseason to prepare to win. If we stay healthy and put the work in this offseason, we should be very tough in 2018."