Prior to the season, New Rockford-Sheyenne football coach Elliott Belquist was asked which teams he thought would be in the playoff hunt at the end of October. He picked Cavalier to win the 9-man Region 2 title and thought Lakota-Adams-Edmore, Hillsboro and Finley-Sharon-Hope-Page would qualify for the playoffs.
Belquist successfully picked three of the four playoff teams in the region and was pleasantly surprised to be wrong about his region champion prediction. The Rockets (11-0) dethroned Cavalier as the two-time defending champion, winning their first region title in program history. NR-S ended Cavalier's season a few weeks later in the 9-man semifinals.
Now, Belquist and the Rockets have their sights set on the program's first state title when they face Region 4 champion Divide County (12-0) Friday in the 9-man championship game at the Alerus Center in Grand Forks. NR-S hasn't been to the state title game since back-to-back trips in 2003 and 2004.
New Rockford-Sheyenne’s Josh Edmonson, left, looks to block for teammate Alex Perleberg, middle, while LaMoure-Litchville-Marion’s Brady Thielges tries to make a tackle on Oct. 20 in New Rockford. The Rockets meet Divide County in the 9-man state championship game at noon Friday in Grand Forks. Photo courtesy of Chris Aarhus/Jamestown Sun.
"I guess I wouldn't have thought we'd be in the title game at the beginning of the year," Belquist said. "We had some good players coming back, but we lost some key players at key positions. But I still thought it could have been possible if we got some breaks here and there."
NR-S junior quarterback Ethan Haley - listed as a wide receiver to start the season - has become a dual threat on offense. He completed 4-of-5 passes for 141 yards and added 108 yards and two touchdowns rushing in a 32-8 victory against Cavalier in the semifinals.
On the other side of the ball will be Divide County, which has a state title to its name. Co-coach Bob Brown coached the Maroons to their only state championship in 1998 and co-coach Nate Nelson was part of the 2005 team that appeared in the Dakota Bowl.
"It's exciting anytime you can get to a championship," Nelson said. "We've been close a few times so to get here is exciting, but it's stressful because of the time restraints. There's a lot that goes into preparing for the state-title game."
Both the Maroons and Rockets had five days to practice and watch film after Saturday's semifinal victories. The teams traveled to Grand Forks today leading up to the approximate noon kickoff Friday.
"We try to get through all the film we have and figure out what their schemes are going to be," Nelson said. "We want to play to our strengths, but it's tough when you don't know much about a team. It's better to see a team live than on film, but we don't have that luxury."
The biggest strength for both teams is their running games, which has guided the Maroons and Rockets to unblemished records. Divide County junior running back Isaac Jacobs and senior quarterback Lance Knudson combined for 330 rushing yards in a 30-14 victory Saturday over TGU.
"(Divide County) is a ball-control offense, so we have to make our possessions count and put up points when we have the ball," Belquist said. "They could run six or seven minutes off the clock with their running game."
The Rockets rushed for 227 yards in their semifinal victory.
"They look very athletic," Nelson said. "They have a lot of speed, more than us, so it's going to be hard keeping them contained."