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Bison Game Day: Sundell is their name, athleticism is their game

Jalen Sundell once had aspirations for a college scholarship in fishing, now he's gunning for the NFL

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North Dakota State center Jalen Sundell, right, warms up with teammate Finn Diggins at Arizona Stadium in Tucson on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum
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FARGO — The big kid at Maryville High School in the northwest corner of Missouri had his sights set on a college scholarship, all right. In bass fishing.

That was Jalen Sundell’s goal and he had the potential to be a five-star recruit for some school. A trip to Canada his freshman year gave him the bug to be good at it. Later, he and a few buddies, with Sundell as the president, started a bass fishing team at Maryville High.

It took a year for that to happen, but the team had dedication. Uniforms in school colors cost $80 and included their names on the back. The club’s Twitter account even included a modern array of UV tackle that fish can see and the human eye cannot.

“It’s just a lot of decision making, it’s kind of like playing chess a little bit,” Sundell said. “And there’s a little bit of luck involved, too. You just have to have a lot of experience and like I said, decision making is kind of the name of the game.”

Scholarships for bass fishing are more popular in the southern United States. But as high school wore on, schools in the northern U.S. started to latch on to Sundell as a college prospect as an offensive lineman.

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North Dakota State nabbed him; hook, line and sinker.

Now in his fifth year in school and third year as the starting center, he’s part of a Bison offensive line that is one of the best in the FCS heading into the Missouri Valley Football Conference opener Saturday afternoon at the University of South Dakota.

NDSU will be fishing for its 11th league title in the last 12 years. There’s a comfort factor in that attempt with NDSU’s experienced offensive line. After never playing center until the 2021 spring season, Sundell is now comfortable with it.

“It’s definitely a different position,” he said. “The footwork and stuff is similar across the board for all five spots and I prepared to know all five spots beforehand. So it was just locking into that position and learning the intricacies. You add a ball, a snap and you’re aiming at a target you can’t see.”

It helps that he's athletic. It’s the family way. His father Bob played basketball at Northwest Missouri State, but his expertise was track and field. He was a Division II national champion in the high jump with a career-best leap of 7 feet, 5 1/4 inches and competed in the 1988 U.S. Olympic Trials.

His wife Korena played basketball at Missouri-Rolla and later on a team with former Bison great Lynette (Mund) Johnson that played Division I and Division II programs in exhibition games.

Korena was on the ground floor of what became the WNBA. It wasn’t a lot of money in those days — Bob said around $50 per game for the St. Louis RiverQueens of the Women’s Basketball Association that ran from 1993-95.

“She’s the only professional athlete in the family so far,” Bob said.

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The potential is there where she could have company. NDSU has had a run of offensive linemen reach the NFL with the likes of Billy Turner, Joe Haeg, Dillon Radunz and Cordell Volson. Sundell would like to join them.

Daughter Serena Sundell started as a true freshman last year for the Kansas State women’s basketball team and was a unanimous selection to the Big 12 Conference All-Freshman team. Who’s a better bet to be a pro: Jalen or Serena?

“Probably my sister if I had to bet,” Jalen said. “But I mean, I definitely have dreams of playing in the NFL.”

She was Missouri’s 2021 Miss Basketball at Maryville High, following a precedent set by her brother, who was the Class 3A Offensive Player of the Year in 2017. An offensive lineman garnering that kind of honor is almost unheard of in football.

“There was no super, duper standout as far as quarterback or running back,” Bob said. “My understanding is a lot of coaches in the conference told (Jalen’s high school coach) that you need to nominate this kid for Offensive Player of the Year because he’s that important.”

Through all of the success, academics is part of the equation, too. Bob was an academic All-American in 1989. Jalen has been on the Missouri Valley Football Conference Honor Roll his first four years. Serena regards a “B” as a failure, Bob said.

“It’s like the world is coming to an end,” he said with a chuckle. “They’re both self-driven.”

Jalen is a self-driven 6-foot-5 and 294 pounds. His agility is above average and his footwork is excellent. The guy can move.

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The only question is if Sundell is going to take advantage of an extra year of eligibility because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’d be lying to you if I didn’t say I was still recruiting him,” said NDSU head coach Matt Entz. “His leadership continues to grow.”

Sundell missed four games last year because of injury. His mentorship of backup Brandon Westberg kept the Bison offense from missing a beat up front. It also may allow Sundell to play another position, something that could improve his pro stock.

He said that could factor into his decision for next year. Volson, who played every position on the offensive line except center, returned for his sixth year of school and turned that into a fourth-round draft pick.

Sundell came to NDSU to play guard or tackle. But seeing a need for a center after Karson Schoenig graduated after the 2019 national title season, the Bison turned to Sundell to take ownership of the position.

“His athleticism provides him the ability to do some things at different spots that maybe you’re not accustomed to,” Entz said. “A lot of guys get pigeon-holed into a position but he’s one of those, athletically, who moves his feet and is long enough to play tackle.”

Having a center who can move is a luxury at the Division I FCS level. It’s not a set-in-stone requirement in the NDSU West Coast attack, but Entz prefers a center who can pull one way or the other after snapping the ball.

“When we can pull the center, I do think it creates some fit challenges for the defense,” he said. “You go back to last year, we had a lot of success in getting him out to the perimeter.”

Sundell has played center almost exclusively this season. The Bison worked on diversity with players playing different positions in fall camp, but that was mainly a long-term approach to be ready in case of injuries.

NDSU played just six offensive linemen at Arizona last Saturday with the five starters and Grey Zabel.

Sundell redshirted in 2018 and spent the 2019 year as a backup, playing 102 snaps with 12 knockdowns and zero sacks allowed. He made the switch to center in the 2021 spring season, grading out at 91% while not allowing a sack.

While his parents and sister perhaps were more athletically gifted, Bob said Jalen kind of bumbled through baseball and basketball and developed late in high school with his athleticism.

“Jalen has always been a kid who understands how to work hard,” Bob said. “He’s a kid playing football, but if he wasn’t playing football he’d probably be 225 pounds or something like that. He’s just been able to put on weight and keep on weight.”

At 225, he still would have been a big bass fisherman in college.

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North Dakota State center Jalen Sundell readies to snap the ball against Arizona at Arizona Stadium in Tucson on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022.
David Samson/The Forum
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Jeff would like to dispel the notion he was around when Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press, but he is on his third decade of reporting with Forum Communications. The son of a reporter and an English teacher, and the brother of a reporter, Jeff has worked at the Jamestown Sun, Bismarck Tribune and since 1990 The Forum, where he's covered North Dakota State athletics since 1995.
Jeff has covered all nine of NDSU's Division I FCS national football titles and has written three books: "Horns Up," "North Dakota Tough" and "Covid Kids." He is the radio host of "The Golf Show with Jeff Kolpack" April through August.
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