It’s a rarity for even the most successful football programs to have nearly an entire team commit to play college ball, but that’s what Washington and Roosevelt did this year.
The two schools’ student athletes gathered Thursday morning – their Signing Day plans pushed back a day because of weather – for a photo-op in front of parents and coaches. Among the Warrior athletes, nine are set to play college football, while the Rough Riders will have 10 players going on to the next level.
“That group of guys is about as well-rounded and balanced as we’ve had in a long time,” said Roosevelt coach Kim Nelson. “They come from both sides of the ball, all different positions.”
The Riders move three on to the University of Sioux Falls in quarterback Jett Thune, three-year starter Nathan Durfee, and Thune’s backside protector, tackle Alex Capell. Tyler Van Voorst and Justin Mueller will head to Augie, while Jamal Albousafi (Wayne State) and Cole Schroedermeier (Minnesota State) also stick around the Northern Sun. Elite 45 honoree Manny Christopher (Dakota Wesleyan) and honorable mentions Sean Powell and Tanner Machachek (Northwestern College) are going the NAIA route.
“Their leadership away from game night is probably the thing we’re going to miss the most,” Nelson said.
“They’re in the weight room every day and they’re motivating not just themselves but their teammates. And if somebody’s not there, they go find them and get them in there. I mean, they’re doing my job.”
Stadem had a similar take on his senior leaders, many of whom gutted through consecutive 3-6 seasons as sophomores and juniors.
“They’re such a solid group of individuals that knows how to work together. Yeah, they went through some growing pains, but they did it right,” Stadem said.
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A total of four Warriors will suit up for USF next season, including Elite 45 honorees Jack Schelhaas and Ty Smith, as well as defensive standouts Joey Wehrkamp and Michael Enalls. Defensive back Isaiah Feterl committed to Augie. At the NAIA level, Stephen Cordell will join Dakota State and Dakota Wesleyan picks up Jenson Amdahl and Chayden Fitzsimmons. Four-star recruit and Power Five conference target Matt Farniok chose Nebraska.
“They stuck together,” Stadem said. “They called it a brotherhood and they took care of each other.”
In reflecting back, Christopher said he’d cherish the friendships the most.
“When Coach Nelson was talking it almost brought me to tears,” Christopher said. “It’s crazy. All these guys have played together since we were little. I knew at the beginning of the year we had something special.”
Christopher, a high-motor player if ever there were one, plans to bring that intensity to DWU, which led the way for most in-state football recruits with 20.
It’s on to the next team.
“It’s hard to swallow that we’re not going to be playing together,” Christopher said. “I love these guys. I’d do anything for them until they day they die. They’re my brothers.”
And if those teammates happen to be lining up across from him? What will that be like?
“We’ve been beefin’ already,” Christopher said. “Some guys are playing D-II, and I’ll be playing against Tanner and Sean. It’s like I told them, I hope one of them plays offense, because we’re friends off the field but if I see you coming over the middle, I’m going to hit you.”
Versatile city signal callers
Certain points are worth re-hashing: Sioux Falls had an embarrassment of riches playing quarterback last season.
For proof, Schelhaas, Thune and O’Gorman’s Luke Fritsch are each taking their talents to the Northern Sun. Schelhaas and Thune will suit up for USF, while Fritsch heads to Augie.
Out of the three, Thune projects as the most likely to remain under center – though his athletic versatility and experience at receiver give him extra options.
““Right now I’m going in as a quarterback, Thune said, “but they said that they don’t normally get players that are just quarterbacks.”
Nelson summed Thune up in one word: “Playmaker.”
“That’s all I ever told the coaches when they came down to see me about him,” Nelson said. “It doesn’t matter if he was playing quarterback or receiver – he needs to have the ball in his hands. He’s just a playmaker.”
Thune showed uncommon poise under pressure as a senior, using quick feet to avoid trouble and a strong arm to put the ball where it needed to go.
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Fritsch expects to line up on the defensive side, but hinted that Coach Jerry Olszewski might not be able to resist some of his abilities on offense. O’Gorman athletic director Steve Kueter – who stepped down as football coach following this season, wherein he broke the state’s all-time wins mark – agrees.
“Augie’s really got a catch, and I don’t even think they even know how good he really is. He’s going to be a difference-maker,” Kueter said. “I think it’s going to be hard for them to redshirt him.”
The final quarterback joining the confines of D-II, Schelhaas, undoubtedly improved the most out of the three during his senior season.
Stadem agreed that Schelhaas wasn’t on the D-II radar before the season started, but said with Schelhaas’s natural ability and work ethic, it wasn’t surprising to see him thrive.
“I think he was the best quarterback in the city,” Stadem said. “Obviously he’s my quarterback and I’m biased, and those other guys are great players, but they didn’t have the number [Jack] had. … His junior year to his senior year, there was massive growth.”
Whether or not any of them play under center at the next level, their other qualities bode well for fruitful football futures.
“Luke Fritsch is a really good quarterback. Jack Schelhaas is a really good quarterback,” Nelson said, after also talking up Thune’s ability, “but they can do something else, too. I think we’ll see more of that down the road.”
Moving up in the Metro
Stadem and Nelson – just as O’Gorman’s Steve Kueter and Lincoln’s Aaron Beavers have done in the past – credited the top-to-bottom quality of their programs in getting recruits ready for the next level.
With not only the proliferation of offseason opportunities – from skills camps to team camps and scheme installations – but also year-round dedication to strength training, many of Sioux Falls’ next-level athletes enter their freshman seasons ahead of the curve.
“I think when you put all of those things together, Sioux Falls kids have an edge over a lot of other kids in the area,” Nelson said. “I’d like to think that our coaches in town are a little bit ahead of the game in some things. I know that our offseason work at Roosevelt is at the best level we’ve ever been at.”
Nelson and Stadem both applauded the work of their strength coaches as well as their players’ dedication in the weight room.
Players have benefited greatly from the combination of weight room regiment and discipline, added offseason opportunities, and a high complexity level in the offensive and defensive schemes.
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“[Activities Director] Nate Malchow always says that our programs are collegiate level – we’re like a small college,” Stadem said. “All of the programs, Washington and the other public and private schools in town. And that competition pushes competition. You can see it in all the schools having had success in football and basketball the past 10 years.”
It follows that many from the latest crop of recruits could see the field as freshmen.
“A lot of our kids are ready, and you start to see them jumping on the field right away,” Stadem said. “I think they’re getting coached really well in this region. There are some teams, talent-wise, in the last 10 to 15 years that have been amazing.”