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Conditions were perfect for UMD’s annual spring intrasquad football game last Friday at Malosky Stadium. Maybe it was just because we had all gotten pretty near stir-crazy from what seemed ike a never-ending winter, but it was almost as if the groundhog on groundhog’s day was invited to keep hibernating for a couple more weeks and we’ll call you when it’s nice out.
It was near 60 Friday, the start of a splendid week of spring weather, and UND coach Curt Wiese rolled out his troops, clad in maroon or white to play a specialized scrimmage to show off what’s in store for Bulldog fans this fall.
Division 2 football has become quite the specialized sport these days. In the Northern Sun Conference, the winning formula is one that Wiese has followed to win annual North division titles — tough and aggressive defense, strong and agile offensive line, and a core of offensive specialists that includes comparatively small, wiry, quick wide receivers and equally small, wiry and quick running backs. And to top it all off, a smart, skilled quarterback who can stand in there and make the right plays to the right guys when necessary.
A problem in the NSIC is that UMD has become the class of the North Division, while three or four teams of near-equals fight it out for the South Division. Teams play division rivals almost every week, with a couple of crossovers against the other division. For the last two years, UMD had the misfortune of playing one of those top-shelf Southern Division teams right off, and losing that game has put the Bulldogs in position where every divisional game is a “must” win.
This fall, things will be different. UMD opens at Minot State, comes home to face Minnesota State-Moorhead, then goes to St. Cloud State, before coming home to take on Bemidji State and Concordia of St. Paul. Those will be tough enough, to be sure, but they are Northern Division rivals, and if the Bulldogs are going to be a title threat, they should form the launch pad for success.
Of course, the personnel will dictate that. UMD had injury problems to its running backs, receivers, and quarterbacks last season. Avoiding those will be huge in calculating success, but the spring game gave reason for high hopes.
Watching casually, as the sun was getting ready to set on that perfect day, my biggest question about the Bulldogs is whether they will return to the explosive running attack they had for almost every one of their championship seasons. Meanwhile, it was intriguing to watch Ben Everhart quarterback the White team and John Larson quarterback the Maroon. There will be more, such as Mike Rybarczyk, who won the job last year but was injured, and he didn’t play in the spring game. But Everhart and Larson were putting on a good duel for the first few series.
Then suddenly, a quick, wiry little guy squirted through the line of scrimmage and was gone — shot through the Maroon line before it knew what hit them. Now, these guys had been working, through snow, cold, wind and maybe even a little siunshine, but they’ve been working on the same stuff. There shouldn’t be any real surprises. But here was one. The freshman running back was 5-foot-8, 185-pound Josh Karfonta, from Waterford, Wis., wh played at Catholic Memorial High School.
He not only burst through the line, but he ran for the end zone. As it turned out, two defenders were chasing him hard, and one of them, Javien Verseyl from Minneapolis Patrick Henry, caught Karfonta with a dive right at the goal line. But too late. He was in for a 61-yard touchdown. Spectacular.
A couple of other major threats for the Bulldogs didn’t participate. Nate Ricci and Jason Balts, who can run, catch passes and return kicks and punts, are seniors waiting for fall to remind us of their potential. Which was good, because it gave some new guys a chance to start to carve out their part of the team mosaic.
The other given in the NSIC these days is that every team seems to come up with some surprising newcomers, but amid the freshmen and sophomores, the veterans carry the day. The Whites beat the Maroons 13-10 in the 44th Spring Game, and that’s understandable. Karfonta did his running for the Whites, and with 23 seniors on this year’s outfit, and Ricci and Balts being two of them, there were 21 left to take the field. The Maroon side had 10 of them, and the Whites had 11. No wonder.
The personnel, the schedule, and the regime of Curt Wiese makes the Bulldogs a favorite — again — this fall. And the spring game was just the right appetizer to keep us all hungry for football season.
The Marshall High School baseball team was getting restless, waiting for the end of another game at Wade Stadium before they could take the field to play Denfeld. Coach Joe Wicklund was more patient than his players.
“How many games have you gotten in so far?” I asked Wicklund.
“One,” he answered.
“Who did you play?”
“Aitkin,” he said. “We edged that one out - 21-1.”
“Who has played the most games in the area?” I asked Wicklund.
“I think Denfeld,” he said. “They’ve played two.”
So goes the normal baseball spring in the Northland. Mid-April, and two games gives you the upper hand. But the Hilltoppers are atop any conversation about Section 7 success, after winning the title with a sophomore-laden outfit last spring. In fact, they beat Aitken Outstanding pitching, a quick, air-tight infield, and a team batting average that boggles the mind.
Marshall may not be invincible, but it will take an awful lot of beating to knock off the Hilltoppers.
Cloquet is another area team with a lot of talent and depth. The Lumberjacks came down to Wade Stadium to face Denfeld last Thursday, and Jon Baker pitched and hit the Lumberjacks to a 10-0 victory in a game shortened to 5 innings. Baker gave up only three hits and struck out 11, and also went 2-5 at the plate and drove in three for the offensive side.