9-man showdownThere’s a high level of pride that goes along with playing North Dakota high school football when the snow starts flying, and for the second straight week the New Rockford-Sheyenne Rockets can measure their season-long success on the gridiron simply by the elements.
By: By Michael Savaloja, The Jamestown Sun, The Jamestown Sun
There’s a high level of pride that goes along with playing North Dakota high school football when the snow starts flying, and for the second straight week the New Rockford-Sheyenne Rockets can measure their season-long success on the gridiron simply by the elements.
As much of the area was blasted with a shot of Old Man Winter last Saturday, the Rockets were kept warm defeating Lakota/Adams-Edmore 22-13 in the state 9-man quarterfinals in New Rockford.
One week later — and with more white stuff in the forecast — the Rockets will be attempting to be one of two teams left standing as they’ll host the Cavalier Tornadoes in the state semifinals today at 2 p.m.
Whatever amount of dandruff falls from the sky over New Rockford this afternoon, it will be accompanied with a crisp predicted high temperature of 32 degrees.
As a diehard football junkie might put it, “That’s how football is supposed to be played!”
“We practiced out there (Friday), and it wasn’t too bad. It’s just that the ball is going to get wet and slippery,” New Rockford-Sheyenne coach Elliott Belquist said. “Turnovers are going to be an issue and ball control is going to be an issue.
“We worked on swatting at the ball (defensively) and making sure we have good ball control (offensively).”
Today’s matchup between the Rockets (10-0) and the Tornadoes (9-1) is a game dripping with drama. Cavalier returns to the field where they lost their only contest of the year in overtime by the final of 48-42 to the Rockets back on Sept. 14.
The Tornadoes are riding high after knocking Wyndmere-Lidgerwood out of the playoffs with a 46-32 quarterfinal victory in Wyndmere last Saturday, and today’s game will center around the play of two of the most prolific 9-man quarterbacks in the state this season: New Rockford Sheyenne’s Ethan Haley and Cavalier’s Ryan Chrest.
Chrest, a 6-foot-3 junior, rushed for 178 yards and two touchdowns against the Warbirds last weekend, while also throwing for 62 yards and a score on 3 of 5 attempts. Against the Rockets back in September, Chrest galloped to a pair of long touchdown carries of 34 and 68 yards.
“Tackling is going to be a huge issue. We know we have to contain and gang tackle Chrest,” Belquist said. “Defensively for us, we have to know where he’s at and what formation they are in. We have to really keep our eyes on him. When he gets out of the pocket there’s a high percentage that he’s probably going to the end zone.”
Cavalier assuredly is thinking the same thing about Haley. Haley, also a junior, broke loose for touchdown scampers of 37, 70 and 35 yards during the Rockets’ OT victory over Cavalier. Haley also hit Seth Gilliss for a 60-yard TD strike through the air in that one.
Last Saturday during the win over the Raiders, Haley scored on a 56-yard run and also connected with Alex Perleberg for a 19-yard scoring strike. Heading into the postseason, Haley had amassed 1,094 yards and 14 touchdowns on 90 carries, while completing 21-of-29 pass attempts for 377 yards and 9 scores.
“We need to keep the ball moving. The weather will be a factor now and will probably take away a little of the passing that we do,” Belquist said. “I’m sure (Cavalier is) hungry and they want to come in and make some noise, but you have to play the game. It’s going to take a team effort.”
The Rockets have been a team on the rise since Belquist, who is now 24-14 with the Rockets, took over the program four years ago. After being ousted by the eventual state 9-man champion in the first round of the playoffs the past three seasons, the Rockets now find themselves just one victory away from traveling to Grand Forks to take a crack at the state title.
The Dakota Bowl is slated for Nov. 9 at the Alerus Center, where today’s winner will face either Divide County or Towner-Granville-Upham for all the marbles.
“We can’t look ahead, and this team has stayed in the moment. I haven’t really heard anyone talking about next week,” Belquist said. “If you don’t show up for this week there isn’t going to be a next week. We need to come out and give 100 percent, have no regrets with what we do and be happy with our effort.”
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New Rockford-Sheyenne has reached the Dakota Bowl on two previous occasions during back-to-back seasons in 2003 and 2004.
Under then head coach David Bymoen — the 2003 state 9-man Coach of the Year — the Rockets took undefeated marks of 11-0 into both of those state title games, where they fell to Linton-HMB (24-13, 2003) and Edgeley-Kulm (40-24, 2004).
Belquist’s younger brother and former NDSU wide receiver, Alex Belquist, hauled in 6 catches for 65 yards and a touchdown during the Rockets’ loss to the Lions in 2003. Alex Belquist was named the state 9-man Senior Athlete of the Year in 2003, while former New Rockford-Sheyenne bruising running back Casey Weber won the same award in 2004.
Elliott Belquist can be proud of bringing the Rockets back to that type of success, but comparing his 2012 squad to those Dakota Bowl teams proves difficult.
“Honestly, I really can’t remember. I think I only watched one game when my brother played those years,” Belquist said. “They were very well-balanced. They could run, they could pass and they had a very good defense.
“We’re very similar in that respect. They might have had more weapons all around, but it was very similar to what we do.”
Current New Rockford-Sheyenne assistant coach Tyler Cook was an integral part of those Dakota Bowl teams. As a junior receiver for the Rockets in 2003, Cook amassed 947 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns.
“I’m sure it would be cool for (Cook), but honestly we haven’t talked about it too much,” said Belquist, of the Rockets possibly returning to the Dakota Bowl to take a crack at the title. “We don’t want to look ahead, but I bet it would be pretty special for him.”
The Rockets’ previous best season under Belquist came just last year when they finished 6-4, and Belquist said it’s his athletes’ commitment to the sport that’s translated into the program’s steady rise.
“You see these guys as freshmen and you know you have some good players coming up. Just to see them grow the last four years and have it all come together the way it has is pretty cool for these kids,” Belquist said. “They’re approach to things, that’s what sets them apart. They do all the right things off the field … they’re definitely students of the game. Any spare moment they have they’re watching film and putting in the extra time.
“They’ve committed themselves and put the team first. That’s the cool thing about this team,” Belquist added. “They’re not just a bunch of athletes out there winning games. They’re earning it by doing other things.”
One more victory and that team commitment will propel the Rockets to the state’s biggest stage.
“That’s why you do it, I guess, to be in those types of games,” Belquist said. “It would be nice to do, but we have a heck of a task in front of us.”
Sun sports writer Michael Savaloja can be reached at (701) 952-8461 or by email at email@example.com