Dickinson State's football program had as strange a season as anyone in 2020.
Remarkably, it wasn't because of any COVID-19 cancellations. The Blue Hawks went 9-0 in an uninterrupted, conference-only regular season and won the North Star Athletic Association conference title. The unusual circumstances came after the regular season, when DSU would normally have been prepping for the NAIA playoffs. Instead, they waited months for the postseason to start, and they fell in the first round to national runner-up Northwestern (Iowa).
"It was a very unique situation, you know, to come back and play again," DSU head coach Pete Stanton told MTN Sports via phone. "And that is the time-frame that we're usually having our our spring ball. But that being said, it was just different because now you're getting ready for a playoff game. And you've been off three months."
While the loss was tough for a program that's been the cream of the crop in the NSAA for the past few years, Stanton said the team felt fortunate to have the opportunity in a chaotic year for many programs. But now his focus is on 2021, a year where the Blue Hawks have once again been picked by the coaches to win the NSAA for the seventh consecutive season. With success comes expectations for more, and championships are the goal, but Stanton said the approach with the team is about day-to-day consistency.
"Last year was last year," Stanton said of his approach to the team. "This, this is now the 2021 team. And we know that we have to keep getting better. So we're just really emphasize to our guys that it's all about this year.
"We don't talk about, 'You got to go win a conference championship.' We don't talk about, 'Hey, you got to be in the playoffs to try to win a playoff game.' We talk about it just really every day, you know, it's a process and working through that process and being successful."
DSU brings back plenty of talent on offense to be worthy of the acclaim, including some big-name Montanans.
The Blue Hawks have 48 players from the Treasure State on the roster this season, and Stanton named a few who will be key if the Blue Hawks want another conference title. Scobey graduate Riley Linder, the team's leading rusher last season, returns to lead the ground attack along with Sidney's Alec Lovegren. Record-setting receiver Tyger Frye (Billings West) is back for a super-senior season as well, and fellow wideout Conor McCarvel (Helena Capital) will be a threat as well.
On the other side of the ball, safety Tel Lunde (Wibaux) is back after carving out a starting role last season, but Stanton said team has some questions around the rest of the defense. But with nonconference games returning this season, DSU will waste no time finding out its weaknesses. The Blue Hawks will travel to NCAA DII Black Hills State (South Dakota) on Sept. 2 for a challenging season-opener. Then the Blue Hawks host Montana Western on Sept. 11 before starting conference play at Mayville State the next week.
"We want to play good teams and just try to try to get ourselves better," Stanton said.