Surrey football dedicates season to fallen teammate

Jimmy Lafakis/MDN The Surrey football team gathers in a huddle during a practice. The Mustangs will host Lewis & Clark/Berthold for their first game on Friday, Aug. 23.

SURREY — Mark Kennedy concludes every football practice by asking his Surrey squad if they want to share any funny stories. It’s a bit of an unorthodox procedure, but the young men regaling tales of how hawks swooped down on them or how darn hungry they were after practice helps the Mustangs bond.

The head coach from southern California brings a relaxed, West Coast-style attitude to the field. When he says his players resemble dancing bears, his laugh is a bellow; his voice a friendly boom.

“We just want it to be fun,” Kennedy said. “When we come to practice, we laugh for most of practice as we’re getting better. When they leave Surrey High School, they can say, ‘I know how to work and have fun at the same time.'”

When the Mustangs step on the gridiron, business takes over. They finished 7-3 last year and were eliminated in the second round of the 9-man playoffs.

As Kennedy heads into his fourth year at Surrey, the Mustangs are tasked with a new challenge. They must overcome the loss of a teammate.

Hayden Staggs, an offensive and defensive lineman, passed away unexpectedly in April. He was nearing the conclusion of his sophomore year.

“We want to honor his memory and play the game the right way in his honor,” defensive coordinator Drew Wierson said. “Not only for ourselves, but also for him. We don’t know when or where that’s going to hit us, but that was one of their brothers. We definitely want to dedicate the season to him.”

Kennedy, a Minot State graduate, came to Surrey before the 2016 season and wanted to change the culture. The Mustangs have emphasized loving each other.

“They’ve bought into the culture of, ‘We’ve got to get better,'” he said. “We’ve got to be able to listen. We’ve got to be able to communicate. We’ve got to be able to love.”

Surrey returns a strong senior core. The players who grew together with Kennedy since their first year include quarterback/strong safety Ryder Holien, wide receiver/free safety Cody Fuchs and running back/linebacker Kolby Nelsen.

“They really bought into our motto ‘Make today better than yesterday,’ meaning yesterday is done with,” Kennedy said. “Let’s try to be better today. They have helped that become embedded into the program. I feel we are at a point now that when we get new freshmen they have something to look up to and strive for.”

Nelsen and Holien earned All-Region honors last season.

“Brotherhood is a big part of it,” Holien said. “You can be hard on them, but at the same time, you have to pick them back up after you beat them down. You can’t just say, ‘Oh, you did this wrong,’ and not tell them how to fix it. It’s a family. “

A significant newcomer will join the fray this year. The Mustangs will use a kicker for the first time in Kennedy’s tenure.

When freshman Ethan Hanson approached Kennedy and said he wanted to kick, the young player and the veteran coach made a deal.

Kennedy assigned Hanson some summer homework. He had to kick 25 times a day. Hanson agreed, and wanted to know if he could practice at home.

“I said, ‘I don’t care where you do them, but I trust that I will know if you’ve been kicking or not,'” Kennedy said. “‘When you come out here and I ask you to kick in front of your teammates and they’re making noise and you shell up, I know you weren’t working on it at home.'”

The kicker promised to work diligently. Ethan’s father, Mathias, kicked for the Des Lacs-Burlington Lakers in his day.

When Kennedy played in college, practices would not end until the kicker made a field goal. He has brought that same tradition to Surrey.

“People think (kicking) is easy,” Hanson said. “It’s really not, though. You need to hit the ball in a certain spot or else it could go anywhere. It’s hard, and concentration has to be there.”

Surrey will host Lewis & Clark/Berthold in its season opener on Friday. When the Mustangs step on the field to face the Bombers, the big-city California coach will focus on the small-town North Dakota young men he leads.

“You try to put the kids in the best situation for them to succeed,” Kennedy said. “It’s not about my success. I’ve already had my time. This is their time, so we’ve got to try to make it the best that we can for them.”

Jimmy Lafakis covers Minot High School sports and Class B high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @JJLII30.