FARGO — A mix of excitement and energy permeated through the entire Fargo North football team Tuesday during the second day of fall football practice.
The sun was shining by the time players arrived at the school for the morning practice, which started with position group warmups. North head football coach Adam Roland stood admiring the glistening green turf, who, along with his players, still gets excited about the artificial surface installed during the 2019 season.
Just over two weeks out from the home opener against Valley City, there were signs of a return to a more familiar season — a breath of fresh air after the COVID-19 pandemic shook up last year’s campaign.
“It’s really exciting,” senior quarterback Daniel Boutain said. “It wasn’t quite the same last year. But now being back out here and having everything kind of normal feels really great.”
Some normalcy returned to the gridiron; however, it's a season of change for the Spartans, who will play in a new division with Fargo South this fall.
Prep football fans will see a seismic shakeup this season as the new classifications approved by the North Dakota High School Activities Association last year are now in effect. The reclassification split the 22 schools competing in Class A in most sports into two classes for football — Class 11AA and Class 11A.
North and South won’t play at the highest level of high school football this year. Based on male enrollment, both schools were assigned to Class 11A, the second-largest division enrollment wise. Schools had the option to opt up to the top class if they wished. Fargo Shanley, originally assigned to Class 11A, chose to remain in the top division (Class 11AA).
“The No. 1 thing we said was that we were going to play where we were placed,” said Roland, who was directly involved in the alignment decision.
This is the first year of the four-class system, which lasts for four years in total.
“It’s definitely gonna be different, but probably different for the better, being that our school size is kind of going down and our record wasn’t the best last year,” said senior Jack Rose, an offensive tackle and defensive nose tackle.
Optimism is high for the Spartans, who posted a sub-.500 record in seven of the last eight seasons. North, which went 2-5 last season, is ready for the new division and new challenges.
“Instead of every single game being the small guy, we know that now we are not the underdog,” Roland said. “For the longest time we were the smallest AAA school in the state. Now we get a chance to be the big school.”
Across town, it took the Bruins a little longer to warm up to the idea of playing in a separate division from the other Fargo metro schools. Seniors Jack Korbel and Kolby Jones weren’t initially keen on the change that moved the storied South program to the second-largest division.
The Bruins, who last won a state championship in 2013, made seven straight Dakota Bowl appearances from 2004 to 2010 and won four titles in that run. They missed the Class AAA playoffs last year after a decade-long streak of consecutive appearances.
“The biggest thing for us is we were placed in the division, and that’s where we decided we’re going to play to start,” Bruins head coach Tyler Kosel said. “We’re gonna have a young football team this year, so it’s probably the best for us now. But ideally, moving forward, we're gonna be going back up.”
Kosel said it wasn’t an easy decision “by any means,” but is ready to embrace the new chapter. And by the third day of fall camp, his players looked all-in to begin the new era. Energy was high at Brant-Quamme Field as the Bruins grinded out another practice Wednesday in the heat of the day.
“I’m gonna go out there and give it my all no matter what class I’m in,” said Jones, who plays running back and linebacker. “I’m definitely looking forward to playing some new guys this year.”
Korbel’s warmed up to the new division after he saw South's schedule, he said. Despite playing in separate divisions, the Spartans and Bruins still get to play their in-town rivals this season. Both schools will see two Class 11AA opponents from the metro area.
Korbel is one of just nine seniors on the young Bruins roster, which has some big gaps to fill. South graduated a solid senior class that featured four all-Eastern Dakota Conference players, including North Dakota State incoming freshman safety Enock Sibomana.
“It was important to establish depth, and not always have to throw freshmen out against senior-dominant teams,” Kosel said. “It's a one-year trial, and we’ll decide from there if it’s right for us.”
The Bruins play Bismarck St. Mary’s in their home and season opener Aug. 27. The Saints won the Class AA state title last fall, their fifth championship in eight seasons.
Depth has also been an issue for the Spartans. Of the 12 schools in Class 11A, South is fifth in male enrollment, while North is third.
“We’d be playing the game and we look on the other sideline and they have so much more depth than we do,” Rose said.
“I’ve told these guys since we made the alignment change, we have no excuses now,” said Roland, who enters his eighth year at the helm. “You can’t come out here and say that you were outmatched.”
North hosts Valley City at 7 p.m. Aug. 27 in its season opener.