Highs and lows develop Blue Jay seniors into stronger people
The seniors have helped to lead the Jamestown High School football team to its second straight state title game in two years.
JAMESTOWN — Bill Nelson couldn't quite escape the emotion that came with talking about the Blue Jay football team's seniors.
"It's a phenomenal group of young men," Nelson said. "They are all going to be very successful at whatever they do. They are all sincere and great kids. You don't have to worry about any of them doing anything that misrepresents the program or the team."
Jackson Walters, Payton Hochhalter, Colton Mewes, Andrew Walz, Aden Braun, Preston Gall, Faustin Tuyikeze, Kellen Lange, Aiden Heinle, Ethan Gall and Sam Schlepuetz are the seniors who have had the privilege of riding the highest of highs and lowest of lows during their time spent with the Blue Jay football program.
The 11 Blue Jay seniors began their high school careers when Jamestown was still classified as a Class AAA program. The then-freshman didn't see much — if any — playing time in the fall of 2019 but they were faithful supporters as they watched Tommy Falk and company pick up wins over Fargo North and Dickinson that year.
The group's 2-7 freshman season was followed by a Cinderella story of sorts.
Starting quarterback Ty Monson helped lead the Jays to wins against Dickinson, Minot, Bismarck Legacy and Valley City to open the year at 4-0 for the first time since 2000. The road win over Minot was the Jays' first since 1959. 2020 marked the year that Braun and Hochhalter got their first looks at the varsity level.
The Jays suffered three straight losses later that year, which tagged them as the No. 8 seed heading into the AAA state quarterfinals. Jamestown was slated to face off against West Fargo Sheyenne in the quarters but an unfortunate brush with COVID-19 forced the Jays to forfeit their season.
"It was kind of sad sophomore year when we didn't even get to try for playoffs because of COVID," Braun said in reflection.
Devastation turned into a celebration the very next year.
On Nov. 12, 2021, the Jays defeated Bismarck St. Mary's 41-27 to clinch its first outright state championship since 1937. Multiple members of the Class of 2023 helped the Jays earn a 10-2 overall and 4-0 Class A West Region record.
It was a full team effort and it only served to motivate the now seniors in their final football season.
The defending state champs started the season at 4-0 before dropping 14-13 to Wahpeton in week No. 5. The Jays rebounded with a 33-8 win over Dickinson in week No. 6 but couldn't get the job done against Valley City in week seven.
The Hi-Liners topped the Jays 34-6 to put them at 5-2 on the year and catalyzed a serious discussion between coaches, captains, the Jays' leadership council and the seniors. Everyone came to the consensus that a switch needed to be flipped.
"I am proud of how we bounced back after the losses," Hochhalter said. "Especially after the Valley City game, that was probably the best thing for us because it changed our mentality. We worked hard and we all know what happens when you do work hard."
In the case of the Jays, working hard means you get back to the Dakota Bowl.
The Jays pitched four straight wins en route to earning a spot in the Class A Dakota Bowl finals. The championship game between Jamestown and Fargo North will kick off on Friday at 3 p.m. at the Fargodome.
"I think about how fun it was to ride the ups and downs," Walters said. "Like sophomore year, being unable to go to State at all because of COVID to last year being able to go to the state championship and win it and now being able to go back our senior year is kind of fun riding those waves with all of these guys.
"It's kind of cool because we've played almost every team in the State except for Fargo South and Class B teams," he said. "It's cool to just experience all of the different teams and every week having a new play sheet that we have to go through on defense and a new scheme sheet. We're always learning and that's pretty fun."
But the band of brothers couldn't have gotten to where they are now without their "dads."
"I think we've got to give credit to the coaches and how hard they push us," Mewes said. "Every day in practice they are making us better. Nelson is making us lift all of the time and getting us bigger and better so huge shoutout to our coaches."
The group thanked the Jays' coaching staff for not only their dedication to the program but also for the life lessons each coach has taught them.
"This program has helped me become a better leader and teammate," Braun said.
"It has taught me to hold my tongue," Heinle said. "It's also taught me to be on time. Because they say practice starts at 4 o'clock, but warmups start at 3:45 p.m. If you're early, you are on time, if you are late you are in trouble."
"It's held me accountable," Ethan Gall said. "You always have to be on task, you can't be goofing off."
"I've learned to not expect anything less than the best," Schlepuetz said.
Fans and spectators should not expect anything but the Jays' best come Friday afternoon.
The seniors said they do want to end their prep careers on top but more than that, they want people to recognize the integrity and character Blue Jay football has produced in each member of the team.
"People know if you are a good team but they are going to remember if you are a better person," Walters said. "I want to go out with a bang but I want to do it the right way."
A head coach can't ask for much more than that from his senior class.
"To see those 11 sit here talking with each other — I tried not to listen — but that's the kind of stuff that I really enjoy," Nelson said. "This group is intentional and calculated, they work hard and they have fun. It's pretty cool to see them all together.
"We're playing our best football right now," he said. "We are doing the things that we need to and we are peaking at the right time and we know that we are never going to play a perfect game but these kids just keep working, working and working and they do it together. That's a team."