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Blue Jay athletes among the best in terms of awards received

Jamestown High School has been responsible for producing 23 all-state athletes in the last year.

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Bernadette Belzer is a key player for the Blue Jay girls' hockey team. She earned all-state honors during the 2021-22 season.
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun
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JAMESTOWN — Some might coin last fall as one of the best ever in Jamestown sports history.

After all, the Jamestown High School football team won its second straight state title, the JHS volleyball team had its highest finish since 2017, and the University of Jamestown women's volleyball team won the university's first-ever national title.

Impressive? Absolutely. Unprecedented? Not really.

"We have some excellent students who have put themselves in great positions," JHS athletic director Jim Roaldson said. "They've worked very hard, they have great work ethics, they have put in the time to get better and they make good decisions.

"They do good things for our community and they are role models for younger students," he said. "These things are all connected to making someone a great athlete."

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Larry Ukestad, the third head coach of the Jamestown High School football program, said the Jays have had a tradition of fielding hardworking, persistent athletes ever since he landed in Jamestown in 1970.

Ukestad's first year had former NFLer Doug Beaudoin and UJ coaching legend Rollie Greeno on the roster.

"We were fortunate — we had some good people at the time," Ukestad said. "Jamestown has been an athletic town. In most towns, the top 2 sports that draw interest are football and basketball. Over the years, Jamestown has had some very, very talented basketball teams and the same thing goes with our football program."

The Blue Jay football team recently won its second straight Class A State title, carrying on the tradition that Ukestad said has been in the Buffalo City since the early days.

"The younger kids see stuff like that," Ukestad said. "If you go up to Two Rivers Activity Center you see kids shooting and playing around, and part of that is that they know they have to work on getting to the next level. That's a key to maintaining programs."

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Jamestown's Bo Nelson (52) reaches out to grab Pearce Parks of Grand Forks Red River during a playoff game at Charlotte and Gordon Hansen Stadium. Nelson was a 2022 all-state football selection.
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

While the kids know what it takes to be successful, it doesn't erase the fact that the Blue Jays often have fewer kids on a team than some of their opponents.

Minot has been the largest district in the state with around 2,000 students in the high school. In recent years, Bismarck High, Bismarck Legacy and Century have seen enrollments of upward of 1,100 students. Roaldson said the Fargo metro area has also seen considerable growth.

Back when Ukestad came to Jamestown the school boasted a population of nearly 1,400 students in grades 9-12 but a few years ago, the Jays' student population had dipped down to around 600 students.

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"You don't see those big families like you used to see," Ukestad said. "To have four or five kids, that was common. Now you are looking towards two or three kids at the most."

While the addition of more schools like West Fargo Sheyenne, West Fargo Horace, Bismarck Legacy and Minot North have helped to level the disparity between school enrollments, Jamestown is still considered a slightly smaller school for the Class A level.

Jamestown's current enrollment is 790.

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Jamestown's Julia Skari competes on the uneven bars this year at the Gymnastics Club. Skari was one of four Jamestown High School gymnasts earning All State honors.
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

"One of the things that have helped us balance some things out has been our athletic development program," Roaldson said. "We needed to develop our athletes. They were who they were and we needed to make them better in order to compete against the other teams."

Head athletic development coach Bill Nelson has been the instigator of the Blue Jay Athletic Development (BAD) program. BAD is a program where athletes from all 22 sports are given opportunities to work on their strength, flexibility, agility, speed and injury prevention.

"We've had good kids from the day that I got here," Nelson said. "Probably the biggest thing has just been we've had more and more buy-in. We offer a lot of opportunities for our kids, that's our No. 1 thing."

There were 230 athletes who participated in BAD last summer.

"I've been doing the strength and conditioning for 24 years," Nelson said. "There's a lot of misconceptions about the weight room, strength and conditioning and athletic development. but it's not all about getting bigger and stronger.

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"It's about getting better," he said. "We don't squat every day. We won't bench and do bicep curls every day. The No. 1 thing is to prevent the chance of injury and increase our performance."

The BAD program only runs in the summer but Nelson still holds strength and conditioning classes throughout the school year.

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Jamestown's Emma Hillerud competes on the uneven bars this year at the Gymnastics Club. Hillerud was one of four Jamestown High School gymnasts earning All State honors.
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

"I have tremendous respect for the coaches nowadays," Ukestad said. "They put in so much time in the offseason and it has drawn interest and it's created some good teams."

In Nelson's 5:30 a.m. class, he is helping to train athletes from the JHS football, boys and girls swimming and diving, boys soccer, volleyball, hockey, wrestling and boys basketball programs.

"We've always had the buy-in and the work ethic even if we haven't had the numbers," Nelson said. "Every class is different, every kid is different. We don't program as freshmen the same way we do for a senior but we work them."

Nelson and Roaldson stressed that the BAD and strength and conditioning program is not just for football players, serious athletes or individuals who are in their offseason.

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"A lot of our teams are going into him and working on these things, whether it's strength and conditioning or movement-type work, we are requiring them to do that two times a week besides their practice times. That's been a big part of our success," Roaldson said.

Athletic development is just one of the pillars contributing to the Jays' success.

"We have a quality coaching staff," Roaldson said. "We've had the ability to bring in some good coaches who are good teachers as well. Having a background in education and working with students can really help and I think that we have that available to us."

Teachers or not, Roaldson said a fair amount of Blue Jay coaches have been fortunate enough to oversee their programming for more than a decade. The athletic director said that kind of longevity breeds success in the programming.

JHS boys hockey coach Matt Stockert is in his 19th year at the helm of the program. Sara Hegerle just finished up her 11th season with the Blue Jay volleyball team at the state tournament for the ninth time in 11 years. Dave Tews coached the JHS gymnastics team for 43 years before officially retiring.

Ken Gardner has been overseeing the JHS cross-country and track and field teams for more than 15 years while Ben Smith has been the go-to guy for anything swimming and diving related since 2008.

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Jamestown's Nolan Nenow, left, leads some teammates across the ice to parade in front of the bench after scoring the sixth goal against Dickinson on Thursday, Jan. 27, 2022, at Wilson Arena. Nenow and Hunter Nelson (22) were named to the 2022 All-State Boys hockey team.
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

Larry Eslick has been with the JHS wrestling squad for longer than the team has been a part of the WDA. Andy Skunberg has been coaching girls' basketball for more than a decade.

"Expectations are set and the identity of the program has been formed," Roaldson said. "We have a sense of pride. That helps our athletes tremendously."

Many of the Blue Jays' longtime coaches share athletes between programs which, according to Roaldson, is one of the other reasons the Jays have been so successful.

"We have students who compete in two or three sports and that helps them become more competitive. They understand what it takes," Roladson said. "It has helped strengthen our programs too. All of the different programs have been supportive of each other and fed each other.

"Our winter and spring coaches are depending on our fall coaches to make sure their common athletes are doing their athletic development," he said. "When that happens, you don't get that petty jealousy from one program to another. All of the programs are intertwined."

According to the public record, since the 2005-06 season, Blue Jays have been named to an all-state team 223 times.

The 2021-22 season marked the most all-staters the Jays have had since 2006. The Jays had 23 all-staters across 10 different sports.

Since the 1960s, the Blue Jays have had two athletes, Bryan Flam and Mason Walters, earn the title of Mr. Basketball. Paige Peterson was elected Ms. Basketball in 2014.

Meghan Ford, the Jays' most decorated distance runner, was awarded the 2021 Gatorade Player of the Year in North Dakota Girls Cross Country three times. Ford was also named the 2021 Class A outstanding senior track and field athlete.

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Jamestown's Brady Harty kicks the ball during a game at Rotary Field. Harty was the one member of the 2022 Blue Jay soccer team to earn all-state honors.
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

Kameron Selvig and Grace Hegerle were named Powerade Outstanding Senior Athlete in Class A volleyball in 2019 and 2020, respectively.

Rachel Schiele was named the Senior Athlete of the Year in gymnastics in 2021 while Haley Nelson collected the honor in 2022. Annie Nabwe was named the Athlete of the Year in track and field in 2020-21.

Hunter Nelson won Senior Athlete of the Year in boys hockey last winter. Payton Hochhalter was named the 2022 Class A Football Athlete of the Year while also setting a record for touchdowns in the Dakota Bowl.

"Being an all-stater starts with the individual wanting to do well and wanting to participate at a high level," Ukestad said. "It starts with the athlete but I think the coaches need to instill some of that as well, fostering some of that potential talent that the athletes have so they can recognize what they are capable of."

Aden Braun and Colton Mewes were two Blue Jay wrestlers who took home state titles last February and were two of five Blue Jays who made it to the state semifinals. 2022 was the Jays' first time being named state runners-up in the individual wrestling tourney in 25 years.

So far this year, there have been 11 athletes across four sports who have earned all-state honors.

"This last decade has been very good to us," Roaldson said. "We've been very fortunate. Sometimes it's luck of the draw but we always focus on what we can do better. We can't control what other schools have or what they do. We focus on how we can be the best Blue Jays and the best teams that we can be and we let everything else take care of itself."

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Connor Hoyt connects with the ball during a Blue Jays baseball game last season at Jack Brown Stadium in Jamestown. Hoyt was an all-state selection this last spring.
John M. Steiner / The Jamestown Sun

Katie Ringer is a sports reporter for the Jamestown Sun. Katie joined the Sun staff in the summer of 2019 after graduating from the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire with a degree in journalism. She can be reached by email at kringer@jamestownsun.com or by phone at 701-952-8460.
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