It’s fairly common for a wrestling coach to recruit off of the football team. Wrestling coaches are usually very quick to point out that the skill set learned on a wrestling mat translate very well to the football field. Leverage, balance, toughness, and tackling are all among the many skills that go hand in hand between the two sports. Coaches will often point out the stellar football players who also excelled on the wrestling mat, such as two-time Florida state champion and Hall of Fame middle linebacker Ray Lewis. Four-time Pro-Bowl wide receiver Roddy White who was also a two-time South Carolina state wrestling champion. Or even NFL career points leader Adam Vinatieri who was a Bismarck Rotary Tournament finalist in high school.
With the obvious connection between the two sports, it is no surprise to see a number of the same schools who finished high at the state wrestling tournament last winter to also be making their mark on this fall’s state football play-offs. Teams like the Lisbon Broncos definitely have a crossover with kids like Jordan Sours (3X State Wrestling Champion) leading the Broncos running attack as they prepare for this week’s quarterfinal round. The Broncos are 7-0 and ranked #2 in Class “A.” Reece Barnhardt is a defensive stalwart for the Class “AA” #1 ranked St. Mary’s Saints who are 8-0 on the year as they head into this weekend’s first round of playoffs. Barnhardt is also in the conversation as one of North Dakota’s pound for pound best wrestlers in the state. The senior is already a three-time state champion, four-time finalist, and five-time place-winner. Another cross-over athlete with success in both sports is Bismarck High’s Isaiah Huus. Huus is currently leading the “AAA” division in rushing yards at 1195 and 21 touchdowns entering this week’s first round of play-offs. Huus was the 182 pound state champion last year for the Bismarck Demons as a sophomore.
Perhaps there is no place better to look for a football/wrestling correlation than the north-east corner of the state. That is where the Pembina County North Grizzlies wrestling team resides. The Grizzlies had a successful wrestling season last year placing 9th in the team race in the individual state tournament while claiming 6th place in the state dual tournament. The Grizzlies were Region 2 champions and qualified eleven individuals for the Class “B” state tournament. Ten of those individuals also play football and only one of them graduated last year so nine of them hit the gridiron this fall. One would assume that those numbers would equate to one tough football team. The only problem is, it actually equates to TWO tough football teams. Pembina County North is a co-op made up of Cavalier and North Border school districts in a handful of sports such as wrestling, cross country, track & field, baseball, and softball, however they each field their own teams in other sports including football, basketball, and volleyball. Despite splitting the wrestlers between two football teams, there has been no shortage of success this fall. Cavalier and North Border are currently a combined 18-1 on the season. The one loss? You guessed it. It came when they played each other on the second week of the season. Cavalier came away with a 36-14 win. It was Cavalier’s closest game of the season and the only game until the play-offs started last week that the Tornadoes did not win by 30 or more points. The Eagles quickly moved on and have rattled off 7 consecutive wins and claimed the #2 seed in the region. This meant a home playoff game, the first for the program in a decade. The Eagles made the best of their home-field advantage winning 24-6 in the first round of the play-offs while the Tornadoes won their opening round game 48-28 just a mere 30 miles away. The Tornadoes were led by 2019 state place-winner Trevor Hinkle who had over 100 yards rushing and over 100 yards receiving, two touchdowns, and an interception on defense.
North Border’s football team includes nine wrestlers from the Pembina County Co-op including WR/DB Jayce Horgan (6th @ State 132 last year), FB/LB Eli Bjornstad (8th @ State 220 last year) and State Wrestling qualifiers Preston Litton, Gavin Hornung, Cooper White, Carson Brown, and Ethan Stegman.
Cavalier, the #1 overall seed for the state football play-offs, has six wrestlers on their roster. They include Demetrius Avila (7th @ State 152), Trevor Hinkle (4th @ State in 2019), and state participants Levi Hinkle, Jake Steele, Matthew Keena, and Andre Letexier who was the 2020 Region 2 Champion at 285 pounds.
In addition to the wrestlers who play football for Cavalier and North Border, there is one other wrestler who competes for a third football team. Drew Simpson joined the wrestling team last year. Simpson goes to school in Langdon, roughly 30 miles from Walhalla and Cavalier. Simpson also plays football for the Langdon Cardinals who are currently undefeated and ranked #1 in Class “A” football. The Cardinals are two-time defending state football champions and are looking for their third consecutive title. When you factor all of this together, you get one wrestling team that contributes to three different football teams who have combined to go 28-1 this season and two of them are #1 seeds in their respective play-off brackets.
The programs have another link as well in Coach Mitch Greenwood. Greenwood is the offensive coordinator for the Cavalier football team and is the site coach in Cavalier for the wrestling program as well. “It is a very unique situation.” Greenwood stated. “It’s so weird to coach against the kids in football that I work with every day in wrestling. Every week of the football season I am looking at the box scores and checking on those other guys. I love to see them having success. I want to see them win every week, unless they’re playing against us.” Greenwood would only have to worry about his Tornadoes playing the Eagles again if both teams were to advance to the 2020 State Championship game as they are on opposite sides of the bracket. “That would be a pretty wild situation.” Greenwood said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to play them in the state championship game on a Friday and then go to work coaching them in wrestling on Monday. No matter what, I am looking forward to getting back on the mat and working towards a big wrestling season this winter!”