Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The seniors in North Dakota State's championship-winning football program are on the verge of finishing with more national titles than losses during their playing careers.
It's an astounding prospect considering most of the seniors take a 57-3 record over the last four seasons into the NCAA Division I Football Championship Game on Saturday. With a win over Illinois State in Frisco, Texas, the Bison would become the first FCS team to win four straight national titles.
"Yeah, it's obviously a tremendous group," said first-year head coach Chris Klieman, who was a part of the 2011-13 titles as an assistant coach. "They (were recruited) during the 3-8 season (in 2009), and many of those guys were able to play early on in their career, and several of them played obviously in the national championship games.
"Unique group in the fact that we lost so many guys from the year before, 25, 26 guys, plus a number of the coaching staff, that I felt bad for those guys because I really thought people kind of wrote them off before the season even started, that most likely we may have a pretty good season, but 8-4, 7-5 may be a stretch for these guys with all the young guys that we were going to have to play, and losing a bunch of coaches, great coaches, good friends of mine. But those guys weren't going to be denied to at least put their best foot forward and be great leaders, great teammates, be people that were going to at least go out fighting."
The 17-member senior class has done even more than that, combining on 174 starts while guiding a 14-1 season. Three of the players earned All-American honors from The Sports Network - Buck Buchanan Award-winning defensive end Kyle Emanuel; running back John Crockett, who is 80 shy of 2,000 rushing yards; and strong safety Colten Heagle, a Buchanan Award finalist - and another six - center Jesse Hinz, linebackers Carlton Littlejohn and Travis Beck, free safety Christian Dudzik, wide receiver Zach Vraa and place-kicker Adam Keller - joined the trio in gaining All-Missouri Valley Football Conference honors.
Dudzik will start in the national championship game for the fourth time, hitting all 60 career starts in the process. The Bison beat Sam Houston State in 2011 and '12 to complete 14-1 seasons and finished 15-0 last season after defeating Towson in the title game. This season, they won their first nine games to set the FCS record with a 33-game winning streak dating to 2012.
"It's crazy to think we've played that much football ... and if you're a senior like Colten Heagle or Christian Dudzik, it's all you know," Klieman said. "You came here as a freshman and you've played in January every year. I know it takes its toll. I know that your body gets beat up, but those guys are so used to it."
Most of this year's seniors were redshirted as true freshmen in 2010 when North Dakota State put the pieces in place for this historical run of success. The Bison finished 10-5 that season, including two playoff wins during a run to the national quarterfinals.
After some of the players hit the playing field, they were at times overshadowed by the class ahead of them - a group that included Brock Jensen, who played in 48 career wins to set the all-time high for an FCS quarterback. Tight end Kevin Vaadeland was one of 24 from that class, but he returned to the Bison program for a sixth season due to a medical redshirt in 2010.
"I'm so excited for all those guys that they're getting an opportunity to get back to Frisco," Klieman said. "For us to win the Valley was our first goal, but for us to get back to Frisco with a bunch of new players and a bunch of new coaches I think is really remarkable because it's so hard to jell so quickly with players and staff."
North Dakota State's 17 seniors: linebacker Travis Beck, cornerback Zach Colvin, running back John Crockett, free safety Christian Dudzik, defensive end Kyle Emanuel, wide receiver Trevor Gebhart, defensive end Mike Hardie, strong safety Colten Heagle, center Jesse Hinz, offensive lineman Zac Johnson (medical redshirt this season), place-kicker Adam Keller, linebacker Carlton Littlejohn, wide receiver Nate Moody, offensive lineman Adam Schueller, linebacker Esley Thornton, tight end Kevin Vaadeland and wide receiver Zach Vraa.