Williams: Thank you for being the highlight of my days in North Dakota

Jack Williams
Devils Lake Journal
Jack Williams covering a game at Lakota Community Center.

I'm not going to lie, I originally wasn't going to write this. 

I was planning on making a simple "Irish Exit" like Darrell did in the final season of The Office. Basically it means to leave without anyone noticing and with my date of departure to Florida quickly approaching, I was planning on dipping without any attention.

However, after talking to a few people at the baseball state championship this past weekend and some guilt tripping from my mother, similar to Derrell, I felt that it would be the right thing to say goodbye. It's been a short time that I've been up here, but these almost 10 months in the lake regional have left a significant impact on my life.

After losing a prior job offer due to a hiring freeze, the Devils Lake opportunity came about and in need of a job, I took it. I worked in Sioux Falls in summer before and automatically assumed that the biggest city in South Dakota was similar to anywhere else in the Dakotas...I was very wrong. 

It was a hard adjustment to life out here, going from living in the suburbs of Chicago my whole life to a town that was almost two hours from a city with more than 10,000 people. But in time, I quickly learned that it wasn't about the resources that were or weren't there or what there was to do, but it was about the people and their heart. Particularly in sports, the high school level meant so much more to these small towns then any other place I have ever experienced. 

While football and volleyball has a strong following in the fall, the true heart and commitment to high school sports from fans and players came out in the winter in gyms across north central North Dakota. Basketball was what brought small communities like Leeds, Langdon, New Rockford, Cando and others together. Even with temperatures dipping near -30, gyms were still filled to the brim with fans. 

The best part about these communities closeness and love for the game was the stories that they brought out. Stuff like the seniors from Four Winds getting their last chance at their dreams, Chile Guthmiller making a giant unexpected step in recovering from a car accident or Jenna Gerhardt pioneering the way for girls wrestling and Devils Lake wrestling are things that you can really find in these small communities.

However, what really made my job worth it was seeing your reactions. The smiles, the laughs, the cheering and in some cases the tears. I always left gyms smiling when I saw parents out of the corner of my eye filming their kid getting interviewed or even long, chats with coaches after games that would just turn into conversation. It's that kind of stuff that I look forward to every day on the court, field, track, rink or diamond that made writing stories so much fun. 

Jack's top 4 favorite stories from DLJ 

Back to the B: After 10 years together, Four Winds' core has one more shot at Class B dreams

In small towns, and in this case on the reservation, basketball mean so much. For nine boys on Four Winds roster, the power of friendship and commitment to each other got them through heartbreak, powered a drive to win and took them back to where they dreamt to be. 

Still recovering from car accident, Chloe Guthmiller makes memorable splash in Rockets win over Drake-Anamoose

I really had no plan going to this game and then the New Rockford gym erupted after Chloe made a three in the final minute. Then I quickly learned that the swish was an unexpected chapter to recovery. 

'I can do that too': Jenna Gerhardt's never quit attitude has made her an important piece to Devils Lake wrestling

On paper, Jenna is one of the best wrestlers in ND girls wrestling, but her positivity and relentlessness to work hard is something so special and extremely radiant.

'Surreal': As they prepare to move forth, Grant and Simon Romfo look back at their time on the borderlands

Grant and Simon have captured the attention of the North Dakota sports world, but their commitment to their team, each other, Langdon and humbleness is truly special. 

And it helped me too. I spent two months at the Journal as the only staff member and the days got very long sometimes. Mixed with the cold weather, a dog who was still very much a puppy, a climaxing pandemic and the cancellation of high school sports for an entire month, getting to bed was a relief. As December rolled around, I was still pretty tired sprinting towards Christmas, but I was very excited for the return of high school sports. 

That same day, I had to rush my dog to a vet in Rugby, because I thought the  hematoma in his ear re-ruptured, forcing me to possibly miss the season opening game between Benson County and L/E/M. After speeding down highway 2 and getting into the vet to find out he was fine, I sped back east toward Devils Lake, dropped Clarkson off and sped back west towards Leeds. 

To this day that still remains one of my favorite games I covered here, not because of the actual game, but because of how happy I was to be there and doing what I loved once again. I realized that the games were an escape and allowed me to truly get back to what I did best and what I loved. Even after the game, talking to Benson County head coach Kent Neppl and junior Quinn Neppl on upsetting a team that hadn't lost in over 30 games, the joy and excitement in their voices and faces really took me back to why I loved this.

Four Winds boys basketball winning its regional, Nelson County girls basketball upsetting Harvey/Wells to go to the district championship, L/E/M baseball winning state, North Star boys basketball upsetting New Rockford-Sheyenne and more are just some of the moments that just put it all into perspective in the end. It was your stories and performances that had me looking toward 7 p.m. starts in the dead of winter or Friday nights under the lights in fall. 

I'm so grateful that I was able to cover a community like yours to start off a hopefully  lengthy career in journalism. As my father puts it, a career is a marathon not a sprint, and this next turn of the marathon take me to Tallahassee and the Tallahassee Democrat, covering high school sports in and around the Tallahassee. I'm extremely thrilled for this next chapter to experience a new place, meet new people, tell new stories, create new memories and push myself to be the best journalist I can be. 

Tallahassee is almost 1800 miles away but I won't forget the stories I've been so grateful to have tell and every face I was able to meet in my 10 months in North Dakota. Thank you to the Devils Lake, North Star, Benson County, Nelson County, Four Winds/Minnewaukan, New Rockford-Sheyenne and Langdon/Edmore/Munich communities for welcoming me into your hometowns. I hope I showed how great everyone of your communities are. 

Jack Williams covers lake region sports and general news for the Devils Lake Journal. Contact him via email at JGWilliams1@gannett.com, or on Twitter @jackgwilliams, or phone at 701-662-2127.