Four Winds Football easing back into region play
FORT TOTTEN - A windy Four Winds football practice was nothing co-head coach Travis Mertens could not handle. His right-hand man in co-head coach Mark Bishop was identically the same way.
There was plenty of football experience to pass around between the pair. Dating back to the 2015-16 season, Mertens was going into year six co-coaching with Bishop. On the other side of the coin, Bishop was going into his 11th year coaching football and his 12th year overall.
In other words, the pair had a stacked collection of expertise to build their program from the ground up.
Luckily for the pair, the experience has paid off, especially in terms of the up-and-down, round-and-round and side-to-side roller coaster their football program has ridden over the past several years. Jumping back-and-forth from being an independent program to a region one would certainly do that.
“When I took over, we were actually independent still,” Mertens said. “It has been back-and-forth with us being independent. We were independent for my first two years, and then we got put back into region.”
However, the transition was anything but smooth. Four Winds did not win a single game in their first year of region play (2017-18). After that, however, there was nowhere to go but up.
And go up the program certainly did. Not only did the team net a winning record during their second year in region, but they additionally played postseason ball for the first time in program history. Although Four Winds lost in the opening round (50-14 against Oakes on Oct. 13, 2018), optimism was in the air for the future.
Except there wouldn’t be. Once Four Winds seemed to be settling into the region grind, they were snatched from the ranks and placed back on an independent schedule.
“It was unfortunate they put us independent after that because we would have had two years of competing for a playoff spot, maybe even advancing in the playoffs with that group of kids,” Mertens said.
After two additional years as an independent program, Four Winds now finds its way back into the Region 3 (9B) ranks.
“For me, going back into region is going to be a real test for us,” Bishop said. “I have really amped it up. The boys can really see it in practice. Not only are we going into region and our competition level is going up, but we just lost 8-9 seniors last year. That was a huge part of our core.”
Youth, however, is not the only prevalent factor on the gridiron. A brief glimpse at practice would quickly show that trash cans sub in where kids cannot.
“When we first started, we could barely field a scout team,” Mertens said. “Coaches had to play spots. You would have to go against air. We introduced trash cans there, just as bodies and to see different fronts. We still use trash cans today because, sometimes, kids tend not to stay focused, but we know that trash can is always going to be in the right spot or in the spot we need it to be.”
A trash can would not be the only way Four Winds prepared for their upcoming season in region. More experienced players would also have to step in and act as role models and mentors for the younger players.
“It is a big thing,” senior quarterback Jayden Yankton said. “Seniors always have to lead, especially to the underclassmen. Going out there, getting in our plays, telling them what to do, how to do it, make sure no one is messing up and making sure we are on the right track if we want to win and make the playoffs this year.”
“It is huge for us,” Bishop said. “Those seniors…Jayden is stepping in at quarterback for us. He has been nothing but an outstanding leader this year. He has really been there.”
With a raw roster currently hovering around the 25-player mark and a program slowly but surely growing talent from the elementary ranks, Mertens believes his program will only continue to rise as it establishes its region footing once more.
“They are going to be at practice, and they are going to do what it takes,” Mertens said. “When you have sophomores going up against seniors sometimes…that senior that has been there for four years, with three years played at the varsity level…eventually that takes over. If they continue to come to practice and continue to show up, this group can also have a lot of success.”
Although Four Winds lost to Bottineau, 36-6, to open their 2020-21 season, the goal is still attainable.
In Bishop’s eyes, the goal is reminiscent of what it would be any other year when his program was in region play: make the playoffs.
“We want to show we can continue to be a contender, especially coming back to a region. We want to show we can keep this thing rolling,” Bishop said.
To Yankton, it is not solely about making the playoffs but about making it past the first round in his final year with the program.
“A couple of years ago, we made the playoffs but did not make it past the first round, so I feel like this year we can get past the first round,” Yankton said. “Getting there would be exciting too but getting past the first round knowing it is my last season. I want to get as far as we can, but just getting there is the main goal.”
Mertens’ goal, meanwhile, stems deeper than winning and giving his seniors one final hurrah.
To Mertens, it is about longevity, and more importantly, getting every kid on the roster through the entire season. In Mertens’ mind, doing that will make his team’s transition back to region as flawless as can be.
“I do not know what the wins and losses are going to be like,” Mertens said. “I think our region is going to be very competitive with each other...you are going to learn that the whole year. If they start that and they finish that, I think that will help the program this year and in years to come.”