DICKINSON, N.D. — Pete Stanton has been a football coach at Dickinson State for 21 years.
But nothing prepared the Baker native for this 2020-21 season.
“You get that momentum of the season and things are going along like last fall, then you feel like, ‘OK, we’re really right where we want to be.’ We ended up being 9-0 … and then it’s on hold,” said Stanton, who is readying his undefeated Blue Hawks to play at Northwestern (Iowa) College in the first round of the NAIA football playoffs on Saturday after a five-month layoff.
“It’s been very difficult trying to get a feel whether you’re doing something right in your preparation or not, because there’s no precedent for it,” he added.
DSU last played on Nov. 7, 2020, a 52-34 win over Presentation College to cap a 9-0 regular season and secure the program’s sixth consecutive conference championship. Stanton, who was named DSU's head coach in December 2013, was named the North Star Athletic Association football coach of the year, and 18 Blue Hawks — including Montanans Riley Linder, Blade Miller, Matt Dey and Tyger Frye — received all-conference recognition.
Fast forward to Saturday, April 17, 2021, and the 11th-seeded Blue Hawks will face No. 6 Northwestern in the first round of the delayed NAIA playoffs. Kickoff is scheduled for noon (MT) Saturday in Orange City, Iowa.
“Fortunately, the way things worked out for us with our first-round matchup, we are going to play a team that is in the same situation as we were playing in the fall,” said Stanton, referencing Northwestern’s 8-1 regular season that concluded with a 49-0 win over the University of Jamestown on Nov. 23, 2020.
While the Red Raiders bring a vaunted offense led by quarterback Tyson Kooima into Saturday’s matchup, it won’t be anything new to Stanton and the Blue Hawks. The two teams have grown familiar over the past five years, playing in 2016 (a 42-13 DSU win), 2017 (a 37-3 Northwestern win) and 2018 (a 14-6 DSU win in the first round of the NAIA playoffs).
“They’re very explosive on offense, they average over 500 yards a game on offense and definitely one of the better offenses in the country. Defensively, they’re very active. They’re very well-coached and have good team speed on defense. Their linebackers are very active, they have an outstanding secondary. We know it’s going to be a very good team,” Stanton said. “I think the familiarity of both teams with each other makes it more of a unique situation. We have seen these guys quite a bit.”
Of course, the Blue Hawks haven’t seen much of anybody other than themselves in recent months. The team took a break after the regular season wrapped up in early November and didn’t reconvene until January when strength and conditioning workouts started. That schedule, Stanton said, wasn’t much different than it would’ve been in a normal year.
His coaching staff changed things in mid-March, though, and started to ramp up the practice schedule to mimic a traditional fall camp with daily workouts and installation sessions. To complete their pre-playoff spring schedule, the Blue Hawks got in controlled practices and scrimmages with Minot State and Dakota State.
“I thought that was a really good way for us to stay sharp and to see someone besides ourselves and get ourselves in some game situations to try to get ourselves ready,” Stanton said. “You know, we only did 20 or 30 plays live, where a full game you’re going to be running a lot more, so that’s really the hard thing between not knowing if you got enough, if you’re ready, but at the same time trying to make sure guys stay as healthy as they can so you put yourself in a good position going forward.”
DSU will have its full complement of healthy players on Saturday. The outgoing seniors, including Frye, a Billings Senior graduate who has had a record-setting career with the Blue Hawks and was named a finalist for the Montana AAU Little Sullivan Award on Wednesday, and Jaret Lee, the North Star player of the year, have made it work with their schedules to be able to play this spring.
“Several of them graduated and it really says a lot about those guys that they took one credit this spring and they’re starting their occupations but yet still working out with us and making sure they finish this thing out right. That’s a real credit to those guys,” Stanton said.
Frye and Lee have formed a formidable duo this season for quarterback Drew Boedecker, combining for 106 catches, 1,484 yards and 16 touchdowns. Conor McCarvel, who played his high school football at Helena Capital, ranks third on the team with 31 catches, and Alec Lovegren, a Sidney product, is fourth with 11. Lovegren also has 46 carries for 216 yards on the ground and another 205 yards on 11 kick returns. Linder, who starred on the 8-Man football fields at Scobey, leads DSU with 142 rushing attempts for 582 yards and six touchdowns.
Boedecker, a Sheridan, Wyo., native, has completed 159 of 239 passes for 2,021 yards, 19 touchdowns and seven interceptions.
Dickinson State’s defense is littered with Montana-grown talent, too, with Aaric Spring (Billings West), Dawson McGlothlin (Sidney), Jared Smith (Glasgow) and Paxton Miller (Savage) all ranking in the top nine on the team in tackles. McGlothlin and Miller each caught three interceptions in the fall to tie for the team lead.
“We just try to tell our guys, as always, ‘Just control what you can control, because everybody’s in the same boat, and try to make the best of it,’” Stanton said. “We are appreciative of the NAIA for having it and being able to complete this season with a playoff when it didn’t look very good last July and August.”
The NAIA playoffs start Saturday with eight first-round games. The national championship game is scheduled for May 10 at Eddie G. Robinson Stadium in Grambling, La.
Fans can livestream the game between Dickinson State and Northwestern College by clicking here.