Looking back at special season
It is easy for the accomplishments of the big boys to get lost somewhere along the line.
The Rugby High School football team’s linemen propelled the Panthers rushers to the second level of opposing defenses all season with little fanfare or thanks.
One stalwart on the line was senior Devin Volk, one of many tough competitors on a 9-1 team cut down in the quarterfinal round of the Class A playoffs by eventual finalist Killdeer.
RHS?coach Scott Grochow wasn’t shy with his emotions as his affinity for the senior class derived from the toughness of players like Volk. The Rugby FFA chapter president, Volk returned a day early from the FFA national convention in Louisville, Ky., on a flight that found him back in time for the Friday practice ahead of the Killdeer game.
Midway through the second quarter, Volk’s arm was smashed between three helmets before being stepped on.
“I didn’t figure it’d be broken,” Volk said. “You get hit and it hurts, but you’re not thinking it’s hurt while playing football.”
Volk, who did not think twice about leaving the convention early, pushed through entire game.
The pain persisted that evening as he ate dinner with his parents. A visit to Heart of America Medical Center revealed a hairline fracture.
Grochow said his staff doesn’t encourage players to play through fractures and other serious injuries and sits players, if aware. Volk didn’t make many people aware of what happened on the collision-filled play.
“We had some kids play through a lot of things,” said Grochow, noting senior quarterback Brad Heidlebaugh’s final high school touchdown, despite suffering a near-fracture in his collarbone earlier in the second quarter.
“We had other kids with things, but they never stopped until somebody told them they’re done. It’s a sign of young people being very committed and understanding what it takes to do things, and not just in athletics.”
Heidlebaugh was unable to return in the second half of the season finale though X-rays would come back negative. Heidlebaugh is one of a select group of Panthers considering football in college.
The 6-foot-4 dual-threat ran over tacklers each game, but has an able arm to go with his college-quarterback frame. The University of North Dakota, a Football Championship Subdivision team (Division I-AA), has offered him a 75 percent scholarship to play quarterback.
Before the season, Heidlebaugh was leaning toward basketball as his college sport of choice. After racking up 2,266 yards of total offense and catching the eyes of UND, he is considering football more seriously.
“This year really pushed me to want to play football,” said Heidelbaugh, an all-state performer in both sports. “We’ll see how basketball season starts out and see who is talking to me. I don’t think there will be just one deciding factor.”
He said he also received interest for his football skills from Division II schools University of Mary in Bismarck and Minnesota State-Moorhead; and Division III Concordia in Moorhead.
Heidlebaugh is yet to receive an official offer for basketball, but has garnered interest from Moorhead, Mary, fellow Division II?South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and NAIA University of Jamestown.
Grochow believes Heidlebaugh has the ability to continue playing under center.
“He’s willing to study film,” Grochow said. “He understands concepts well. He has size, strength and speed. He knows he has mechanics and things to work on.”
Grochow said seniors Tanner Bernhardt (WR-DB), Zach Miller (TE-DE) and Devon Berg (OL-DL) also are receiving interest.
Miller said he will more likely consider basketball or track and field, if he continues athletics beyond high school. Miller is yet to receive an offer, but has talked to Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D., about track and field.
Bernhardt has a trip planned to Moorhead to explore football opportunities. He said he has also received interest from the basketball programs at Valley City State University and North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton.
Replacing the senior leadership and play-making ability will be a challenge for the RHS football program.
Heidlebaugh was named the Region 3 Senior Athlete of the Year and was joined on the first team by Berg, Bernhardt, Miller and seniors Eric Hooker (RB-DB), Reid Mundahl (OL-DL) and Bennie Mygland (OL-LB). Junior return-man and running back Victor Gronvold was the only non-senior from the team to be voted first team.
Junior linebackers Hunter Hager and Blackhawk Jones made the second team along with classmate and wide receiver Ryan Michels.
Replacing Heidlebaugh will be the most difficult and obvious challenge. Sophomore Anders Johnson will follow a three-year starter, who finished his career with gaudy numbers.
Heidlebaugh threw 14 touchdowns – seven to Miller – with just four interceptions and 1,495 yards. Miller gained 443 yards on 27 receptions.
Gronvold and Michels proved able receivers out of the backfield and on the edge, respectively.
Heidlebaugh scored 17 touchdowns on the ground and led the team with 771 yards, averaging 9.1 yards per carry.
Hooker had a stellar year too, rushing for 12 touchdowns and 653 yards. Gronvold averaged 13.6 yards per carry to lead the team and finished with 585 yards. Sophomore Kade Leier saw limited action on offense, but showed glimpses of a tough, straight-ahead back.
“Victor, Blackhawk, Ryan and Hunter, those are the guys who really have to step up,” Grochow said, “but that whole class has to decide to step up and lead.”
Defensively, RHS loses leading tackler Mygland, who had 62 solo stops. Hager and Jones followed with 49 and 45 tackles, respectively. Hooker led the team with five interceptions and returned one for six. Bernhardt and Mygland also returned interceptions for touchdowns.
Miller led the team with six sacks and Berg added five.
The Panthers will be playing in a new region on top of replacing a healthy number of starters. RHS will still have rival Harvey-Wells County as a region foe, but will join playoff teams Larimore and Park River-Fordville-Lankin (a state finalist). The region will have just six teams, rounded out by Langdon Area-Munich and Lakota-Edmore-Dakota Prairie.
Grochow said he has nothing against Hazen, but wasn’t disappointed to see Killdeer advance to the title game by bouncing the defending champion Bison.
“If you’re gonnna be beat, be beat by the best,” he said.
The season ended too early for Grochow’s liking, but he will take plenty of good memories away.
“I think any time you can play double-digit games in a high school football season, and you’re 9-1 in those games, you had a really nice year,” he said. “I’d like to think these kids learned a lot about not just about winning and football, but how to do things right.
“It was a very enjoyable season. When you went to practice it wasn’t a drudgery. We had kids willing to work on little things.”