Schnepf: Vraa's long career ending like it started—with another playoff run

FARGO - It was five years ago about this time when the North Dakota State football team ended the regular season with a 6-3 loss at Missouri State. In a strange sort of way, it was the beginning of good things to come for the Bison program.

North Dakota State sixth-year wide receiver Zach Vraa makes a comment during a media day at the Fargodome on Wednesday, August 5, 2015 in Fargo, N.D. Nick Wagner / The Forum

FARGO – It was five years ago about this time when the North Dakota State football team ended the regular season with a 6-3 loss at Missouri State. In a strange sort of way, it was the beginning of good things to come for the Bison program.

Bison in position for high playoff seed after 55-0 win over Missouri State

Zach Vraa remembers it well. He was a redshirt freshman watching the Bison make a run to the quarterfinals of the FCS playoffs.

Five years later, NDSU has won four national championships. Five years later, there was no Missouri State upset to end the regular season-far from it. After Saturday's 55-0 trouncing of Missouri State, the Bison are gearing up to make a run for five straight.

And the 23-year-old Vraa would like nothing more than to end his long career-yes, it will finally end-with another championship win in Frisco.


"It seems like years ago now," Vraa said, referring to the 2010 loss at Missouri State that he listened to on the radio back in Fargo. "We knew after that game that we had a lot of work to do. The guys came ready to work and some guys stepped up and we had a bright future ahead of us."

That pretty much describes this year's Bison. After suffering a home loss to South Dakota, the Bison had two losses and a lot of doubters. They bounced back with five straight wins-earning a share of their fifth straight Missouri Valley Football Conference championship and putting them in position for a high seed for the upcoming playoffs.

Bison head coach Chris Klieman credited the 14 seniors he hugged during pregame introductions. It's the smallest senior class since 2012. But it's a class with some of the biggest accomplishments, like a 53-4 record, and a shot at winning a fifth straight national title.

Oddly, it was the second straight year Vraa was given a senior sendoff.

Technically, Vraa was a senior last year. But a broken collarbone that forced him to sit out NDSU's first national championship season in 2011 allowed him a medical hardship and another year of competition. Less than a week after last year's title win, Vraa announced he was coming back.

"I kind of wanted to leave and focus on keep playing," Vraa said of a possible pro career. "But as soon as everything sunk in, I thought to myself .. 'Shoot, there is no way I can leave this place.' There was just no way I could do it."

This year's official seniors welcomed Vraa with open arms. This is a class that includes four seniors who could very well get a shot at the NFL.

Fullback/tight end Andrew Bonnet could get a tryout. Some think offensive lineman Joe Haeg could get drafted. Punter and kicker Ben LeCompte had an NFL scout watching him during Saturday's warmups. And injured quarterback Carson Wentz-who was throwing 30-yard strikes with his non-throwing left arm while playing catch before Saturday's game-is still one of the top-rated pro prospects who plans to play in January's Senior Bowl.


Wentz, one of three quarterbacks who has thrown to Vraa, suited up for the game. And with less than 10 minutes remaining, he appeared in one ceremonial play as a running back. When he left the game, the crowd that decided to stick around gave him a standing ovation.

"During the week, we planned to get Carson out there," Klieman said. "He deserved that. He was the best player in the FCS this year, period. I wanted him to be honored the way he should've been."

Klieman said they wanted Wentz to line up as far away from the action as possible. Vraa jokingly suggested another option.

"I was kind of hoping they would give him the ball and he could give them a mean little stiff arm," Vraa said. "But lining him up there was the next best thing."

For Vraa, the next best thing would be another national title. After all, it's been a long road. It's been six years of rugged offseason weight training, six years of enduring nagging injuries like the hamstring pull he suffered during last year's playoffs. Simply put, it's been a lot of football.

"It does feel long, but at the same time it has flown by," Vraa said. "I am so comfortable with everything around here, it feels like I've been here 10, 20 years. But when I look back at it, it just feels like the other day I was putting on pads for the first time."

Vraa will eventually end his long career as NDSU's all-time leader in receiving yards (he currently has 2,854), all-time leader in receptions (he currently has 186) and all-time leader in touchdown receptions when he hauled in his 27th Saturday.

The catch was ruled incomplete at first. But a replay review showed Vraa had one foot inbounds after hauling in Easton Stick's high-arching pass to the corner of the end zone.


That prompted teammates to hug their senior teammate on the sidelines.

"It meant so much to me at that moment ... it got pretty emotional for me," Vraa said.
Had the review ruled incomplete, the Bison were ready to run the same play again.

"He deserves it," Klieman said. "He has been an exceptional player for us for a long time."

Six seasons to be exact.

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