Sporting sleek new uniforms and charging the field behind a new head coach, the Pioneers are hungry to climb back to the top of the MCAC Northern Division Conference. At the close of the 2013 season, Thief River Falls lost a team that had united the community since the mid 1970s. No one knew when or if Northland football would return, but the excitement never faded. To the delight of the team’s many loyal fans, the stadium lights wouldn’t be dark for long. With the signing of a new head coach last December, the comeback was officially on.
NEW COACH A FAMILIAR FACE
It’s a little after 1 p.m. on a hot Tuesday afternoon in early August. Campus is quiet, but the unmistakable sound of a whistle pierces the air, signaling it’s time for a water break. The humidity is turning oppressive, so the players are thankful for a chance to escape the midday sun. The young team is halfway through day two of preseason workouts, two-a-day practices that new head coach Travis Martin is using to set a determined tone for the season ahead.
As he reviews the notes scribbled on his clipboard, he pauses and looks up at the momentarily empty field. For Martin, it’s not just a familiar scene, it’s a familiar field—Northland plays its home games across the street from his grandparents’ house. Martin may be the new face of Pioneer football, but he’s a third generation fan who spent many summer days with grandma and grandpa cheering on the red, white and blue. Fittingly, it’s a tradition that will continue.
“Our daughter has six great-grandparents within 15 minutes,” Martin said with wide eyes and a thankful smile. “My mom’s side of the family is from Thief River, and much of my wife’s family is also from this area. So we were very very fortunate to get the chance to move so close to family and for me to get my first opportunity at being a head football coach.”
Soon after he got the job, Martin decided to put his first-hand Northland knowledge to use. In a nod to the Pioneers’ rich history, Martin brought back three assistant coaches from the previous staff to help him shape the future of Northland football. It’s a winning strategy that humbly makes room for the positive influence of a very successful past… a strategy that will bring Northland back into contention both on the field and in the offseason race to recruit top local talent.
STUDENT ATHLETES ARE MORE THAN X’S AND O’S
“I could sit here and talk about the number of wins I’m looking for, of course… I’m a coach,” Martin said. Then he leans in, and his stare turns serious. “We want to teach invaluable life lessons. I want to know that the things they learn out here with us will go with them when they go out into the world to pursue their dreams. There’s a much bigger picture than just our eight games and the wins and losses.”
Not surprisingly, Martin’s philosophy was inspired by the coaches he played for from his days at Grand Forks Red River all the way through college. He even looks to the way former NFL head coach Tony Dungy approached the role of a coach, saying “You’ll never hear me out on the field shouting and screaming or swearing. Dungy was a big proponent of understanding your role when it comes to that bigger picture of using football to teach those lifelong lessons.”
It’s clear that Martin’s athletes mean more to him than just Xs and Os on the locker room whiteboard. He’s here at Northland committed to making an investment in his players both on and off the football field. Just ask Trevor Smith, Northland’s first-year outside linebacker from Blackduck, MN, who arrived on campus for training camp without knowing exactly where he was going to live.
“Two guys from Hawley needed an extra roommate in their house,” Smith said, “so Coach Martin introduced me and basically helped me find housing.” It’s that small-town feel of helping out a fellow Pioneer that drew Smith to Northland. That and the fact that he could play football, wrestle and complete his general education credits for a fraction of the cost all at the same time.
Smith’s long-term plan is to attend NDSU, maybe earn a walk-on spot with the Bison and complete his four-year degree in mechanical engineering. It’s the kind of thoughtful plan that combines both athletic and academic success you’ll hear from most of Coach Martin’s players. Kaleb Torgerson, a versatile fullback and tight end for the Pioneers’ run-first offense, has a long-term plan, too. After taking a couple years off to work, he’s back in school playing for the team he grew up idolizing.
“My mom worked at the college and she always took us to the games,” Torgerson said with a big reminiscent smile. “Coming here when I was little and seeing how huge everyone was… they were just giants and I wanted to play like them. I came here to play and get my associate’s degree before going to a four-year [college] to get a business degree so I can open my own gym one day.”
LOOKING AHEAD TO THE FUTURE OF PIONEER FOOTBALL
You want to be a Pioneer? Come to Northland and commit yourself to success both on the football field and in the classroom, and you’re going to get every opportunity to play, as well as loyal support from a coaching staff that will do everything they can to help you achieve your post-graduation goals. That’s the message Coach Martin shares with recruits.
“Commit yourself to getting your degree,” he said, “and I’ll commit myself to your athletic success. If you come play for us, achieve in the classroom and you do what we ask you to do for two years, we will pick up the phone and call and call and call to help you get recruited to a 4-year school if that’s your goal.”
The future of Pioneer football is in great hands with Martin leading the way. And the word is out. “Already, I can’t go anywhere in town where I don’t get asked how things are going with the football program,” Martin said, his voice revealing that the pinch me, I’m dreaming feeling hasn’t entirely worn off. “I have to remind myself that even though I’m only 25, I’m still the head coach of a college team.”
Martin’s young team has set high goals for their first season back. They want to be a playoff team, they want to pack the stands with cheering fans and they want all 60 guys who make the team to finish together. This is a community college football team that epitomizes the word. They know who they’re playing for. As Torgerson, the burly, yet soft-spoken fullback said, “We’re here to stay… to make our town proud.”
Martin and his staff are determined to elevate Northland Community & Technical College to the top of the MCAC by committing to their student athletes—many of whom will be local recruits—and preparing them to be leaders off the field after they graduate.
“I believe you come to a community college for an opportunity to play while earning your two-year degree,” Martin said. “In two years, you can go out into your hometown and make a difference with your career. That’s the drive we look for and promote to our players.”
But make no mistake… the Pioneers are out to win. “The end goal is to be playing on that first Sunday in November in St. Cloud for the title,” Martin said defiantly. “We want to get there, and I’m here to see this thing through to that end.”