Grand Forks sits on the border of North Dakota and Minnesota, about 145 miles south of Winnipeg, Manitoba, and 315 miles northwest of Minneapolis.
Once you find it, it’s hard to leave. At least that’s the opinion of Emmett Lynch, the University of North Dakota’s 312-pound senior left tackle.
“Both my parents are from North Dakota,” said Lynch, who was raised in Lester Prairie, Minn., a town of 1,200 on the outskirts of Minneapolis. “I really liked the school. I came here on my official visit and kind of fell in love with the campus.
“It was a really easy decision. I canceled my visit to NDSU.”
North Dakota State sits in Fargo, 75 miles south of Grand Forks, by the way. The schools’ proximity means there’s a lot of competition for the limited number of Division I athletes in one of the union’s least populated states – North Dakota has roughly a quarter of a million fewer people than Montana.
That means UND – the school dropped its Fighting Sioux nickname over the summer – will range far and wide for players. The 2012 team starts a transfer quarterback from North Carolina, a receiver from Nebraska and linebackers from Arizona and California.
“It’s a unique position for us, being in the Big Sky, and being the furthest east team in the Big Sky,” said UND coach Chris Mussman, who takes his team up against the visiting Montana Grizzlies on Saturday. “We’re essentially located in the Midwest, so that’s our base area to recruit. So we’ve got to do something different to recruit, and I think we do.”
But the basics are the same: Come see us, and then decide.
“You look at the facilities, you look at the community and you look at the university,” Mussman said.
Grand Forks was founded at the confluence of the Red River and Red Lake River, and has around 50,000 people. It also has UND, which among other things boasts one of the better Division I hockey programs around and an indoor facility – the Alerus Center – for football.
That football team isn’t bad, either, with a Division II national championship in 2001 and a runner-up finish in 2003.
Six years ago North Dakota followed NDSU into the Division I Football Championship Subdivision. This is its first year as a full-fledged member of the Big Sky, though the season hasn’t been smooth.
That North Carolina transfer, Braden Hanson, was hurt in UND’s first game, a 66-0 walkover against South Dakota Mines. He returned to the lineup for a 55-17 loss at Eastern Washington on Oct. 6, but was hurt again last week in a 45-38 home loss to Northern Arizona.
Standout defensive end Ross Brenneman, meanwhile, is doubtful with a knee injury suffered at Eastern. Long story short: UND is 3-4, including a 1-3 mark in the Big Sky.
Exactly like Montana.
“Both teams, if you look at it, are kind of a mirror image to a certain degree,” Mussman said. “In the sense that we’re making mistakes at times that are costing us football games.”
Last week’s loss comes to mind: A penalty resurrected a 99-yard NAU drive that put the Lumberjacks up 38-31; a fumble on the hit that knocked Braden out of the game gave the Jacks a short field and they soon led 45-31 with 4:00 left.
North Dakota came to Missoula in 2010 and led 17-13 early in the third quarter. That team finished 3-8 but had talent. Mitch Sutton, currently UND’s leading rusher, had a 50-yard TD run. Greg Hardin, now the top receiver, had three rushing attempts.
Marcus Hendrickson, Hanson’s backup, made the start at QB that day. He’s also made five starts this season because of Hanson’s early injury.
“We’ve been thoroughly impressed with him through this kind of bumpy ride,” Mussman said of the 6-foot-1 Hendrickson, who has 15 TD passes. “Braden (a lefty who stands 6-5) comes in and was playing well the first game and ends up unfortunately breaking his leg. Marcus made the most of opportunities – at one point he was leading the nation in passing efficiency.”
Hardin has been the main target and Mussman also raves about Jameer Jackson, a 6-3 freshman out of Brooklyn Park, Minn., who has 33 catches for 453 yards and six scores.
“His junior year of high school, Jameer led the state of Minnesota in receptions and touchdown catches,” Mussman said. Jackson slipped to UND perhaps because his team went to a run-based attack his senior year.
“We knew he had some talent,” Mussman said. “I mean, he’s 6-3 and 240 pounds right now. He’s as physical as you’re going to see from a receiver standpoint.”
The list goes on. Sophomore linebacker Ben Peters had only one scholarship offer out of Chandler, Ariz., and that was because Mussman’s staff had a tape sent in by his high school coach. Garrison Goodman, UND’s top tackler, came in from San Roman, Calif.
“It was between us and Eastern Washington,” Mussman said of Goodman. “And he loved it here.”
Mussman wants more depth for a defense that’s given up big points and big yards. Just give him, and Grand Forks, a chance.
“Most people, when they see what we have, they leave saying, ‘Wow, that’s pretty nice. I had no idea,’ ” Mussman said. “We may not get the kids all the time, but they’ll leave impressed with what we have.”
Fritz Neighbor can be reached at 523-5247, at email@example.com or @Fritz_Neighbor.