By Brad Blume
Sports Information Director
South Dakota School of Mines
RAPID CITY ---The South Dakota School of Mines football program went through some growing pains in 2006. With a large recruiting class in place as freshmen last year but low numbers at the upperclassmen spots, the Hardrockers had an uphill battled throughout the year. They were able to gain knowledge and experience each game they played.
As the 2007 season begins, things are somewhat similar, but at the same time different.
The Hardrocker coaching staff was very busy in the off-season, signing quality athletes from as far away as Arizona, Idaho, Ohio, Washington and California to come join the core group of SDM players already in place. And as fall camp started, 35 names were added to the roster as freshmen along with a few transfer students, giving the Hardrockers a total of 63 athletes on this season’s team.
“We are still a very young football team. We have a lot of freshmen that are going to contribute all year,” said Hardrocker head coach Dan Kratzer. “But we are ahead of where we were at this time last year. That’s a real plus --- a real positive.
“We are ahead on offense, we are ahead on defense and we are ahead of where were last year at this team on special teams. All three important aspects of the game, we feel like we, at least, have an edge over ourselves.”
The key element that is working in the Hardrockers’ favor is that there is depth at every position. Last year, numbers were down quite a bit and SDM had trouble filling spots at every position. It has really put South Dakota Mines in a better position this time around and it becomes somewhat easier to gauge how the team will fair, however, it won’t be known for sure until they compete in actual games.
“It’s really hard to tell your strengths in practice. Obviously we have more depth at running back and quarterback then we had last year,” Kratzer said. “We have more depth on the defensive line and the secondary then we had last year. From that perspective we feel those will hopefully be strengths of ours.”
The Hardrockers lose a small group of seniors to graduation: Mike Mule’ (LB), Jake Hahn (LB), James MacCormack (LB), Galen Hoogestraat (TE) and Eric Thompson (DL). All were big contributors last season with Hahn earning Dakota Athletic Conference second team defense honors.
The seniors this season will have some shoes to fill, but most have played key roles the past couple of seasons and should do so again this year. The 2007 senior class includes: Lukas Munsell (WR/RB), Kyle Kurth (DB/WR/P/K), Anthony Rud (DB), Steve Perez (WR), Mike deStigter (DL) and Charlie Hankins (DL).
“Charlie is playing very well for us on the defensive line,” Kratzer said. “And Lukas is also playing well. He’s gone from a ‘Z’ Man second-team all-conference receiver (in 2006), to his favorite spot, and that is running back. He still will be catching the ball quite a bit.”
Munsell caught 39 balls a year ago for 375 yards and two touchdowns.
Kurth was also a DAC second-team selection last year as a defensive back and as this season gets underway, Kurth could find himself wearing a lot of different hats for the Hardrockers. “He’s competing for a starting spot on the defense (defensive back), but he’s also competing for a starting spot on offense. We’ve given him an opportunity to play receiver and has responded very well. And right now he is our No. 1 kickoff guy and our No. 1 punter,” Kratzer said. “Certainly will be more of a contributor this year then he was last year as a team player.”
As for deStigter, he reported to fall camp with more mass and is really looking to solidify the defensive front.
“Mike has done a very good job on the defensive line this year. He came into camp stronger and a little heaver,” Kratzer said. “He is going to give some of that depth that we didn’t have last year on the defensive front.”
Perez and Rud will also add depth to the roster. Perez will be playing an ‘H’ back position and will back up Munsell while Rud is a great special teams player as well as a reserve for the Hardrocker secondary.
“That’s kind of his role. He knows it and has accepted it,” Kratzer said of Rud.
With every new season there are always a group of players that surprise the coaching staff and look to contribute at a quicker rate than expected. Freshman Tom Lunzman (FS) is one of those athletes. Lunzman was a Nebraska All-State defensive back his last year of high school and that appears to have carried over to the start of his college career.
“He came in and looks like he is a veteran player in the secondary. He makes plays in the passing and running games and has just done an outstanding job,” Kratzer said.
Another player that has stepped up his game is freshman Trevor Roberts. Roberts was recruited as a quarterback, and while he still may see time as that position, he has worked his way into the starting tight end spot. And at 6-foot-2-inches and 250 pounds, it should be a good fit for the Washington native.
“We are going to utilize him wherever we can,” the head coach added.
The best surprise of camp however has been with local standout Justin Whalin. The Rapid City Central graduate joins the SDM team as the place kicker. The ‘Rockers are excited to see what the former Cobbler can do as it adds a much needed dimension to their offensive game.
“He’s been a good find for us and has earned his spot on this football team,” Kratzer said. “What he does for us is that instead of it being the 20-yard line, now the red zone becomes the 30-yard line. He is capable of kicking 37 to 40 yard field goals.”
Despite their being depth at quarterback with five players vying for the starting spot, the 2006 starter, Jason Beilstein (sophomore), has retained the position. Last year Beilstein was 102 for 193 for 1041 yards and seven touchdowns. The SDM coaches are expecting him to improve on those numbers as he leads the 2007 team.
“Jason came back and stepped it up in the spring and then he’s had to step it up again (in fall camp). Joe Sanchez (freshman from Arizona) and Dana Mellage (freshman from Nebraska) have really put the pressure on him to be a better quarterback. Either one of those guys are capable of leading this football team and that’s something we have never had,” Kratzer said. “We’ve never had, since I’ve been here, two quarterbacks that can lead this team and now we are sitting with two freshmen that we are comfortable with and a sophomore.”
Another immediate impact player new this year will be junior transfer Joshua Jones. Jones spent a year at the Air Force Academy before an injury sidelined him. He then went to a junior college for a year and is now ready to finish his college career as a Hardrocker. Jones is 6-1, 230 pounds and has that game-changing ability the Hardrockers have been looking for and really opens up the playbook for the offense.
“He is a very consistent player. He’s got good strength, good speed, good knowledge of the game and good field awareness,” Kratzer said. “He has everything you would want in a back. He can catch the ball in the backfield and he can run inside or outside.”
With the DAC as one of the toughest conferences in NAIA, the Hardrockers are approaching the season in a simple way --- they just want to make a game out it each and ever week.
“We are still trying to focus on being as competitive as we can be,��� Kratzer said. “One of our goals is to finish two spots higher in the league then we were last year.”
South Dakota School of Mines finished eighth in the conference last season. The preseason polls have them moved up to seventh, but if the team gels quickly, they could catch a few teams off guard and find themselves quickly moving up the conference ranks.
“Our primary goal is to have a winning season and that is something that hasn’t been accomplished here for 20 years,” Kratzer said. “When we get to that point, then we put the other aspects of the game, and recruiting, into play.”
Black Hills State was picked to win the conference this season after finishing on top in 2006, with Jamestown and Dickinson tied for second. Minot State and Valley City State share the preseason No. 4 spot, Dakota State is sixth and Mayville State eighth.
“Black Hills and Jamestown are two teams that really came on strong last year and have good solid programs right now with some good (returning players). Of course you can never count Dickinson out. Those three teams are in the hunt,” Kratzer said. “Valley City has the capability of being a big-play football team and so does Minot. Dakota State, us and Mayville continue to try and build our programs.”
The coach concluded by saying, “It will be very competitive across the board.”
And that’s all he and the rest of the Hardrockers really want.
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