Bulldogs happy to be back in 'Bama

An old familiar tune played over the loudspeakers at Malosky Stadium moments after Minnesota Duluth beat Northwest Missouri State 17-13 in the NCAA Division II football semifinals.

An old familiar tune played over the loudspeakers at Malosky Stadium moments after Minnesota Duluth beat Northwest Missouri State 17-13 in the NCAA Division II football semifinals.

The Bulldogs know Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama," just like they know a little something about the Cotton State, having played the song en route to winning their first national football championship in 2008 in Florence, Ala.

UMD returns to Florence this week for the 2010 installment of the title game, which pits the top-ranked Bulldogs against upstart Delta State of Cleveland, Miss. Game time is 10 a.m. Saturday at Braly Municipal Stadium.

The Bulldogs feel having been to the title game two years ago will help them stay focused through three days of championship activities that include police escorts, press conferences, banquets and public service events such as visiting a local elementary school. UMD will take a charter flight to Florence tonight.

"Anytime you can get somewhere once, you learn from that experience," said UMD senior linebacker Kiel Fechtelkotter. "Florence does a great job hosting the game, and you've just got to go into it with an open mind. You don't want to get too caught up in all the hoopla and distractions because it ultimately comes down to us playing on Saturday and trying to get a win."


Division II football power North Alabama is located in Florence. The Lions lost in the DII title game to North Dakota State in 1985 in McAllen, Texas. North Alabama officials didn't feel the game felt like a championship experience, so the Shoals National Championship Committee began bidding on the game and has been hosting it ever since.

Braly Municipal is one of the largest stadiums in DII and has continued to upgrade, with artificial turf replacing the stadium's natural grass last summer and improvements made to the scoreboard.

Outside of the game itself, most of the UMD veterans said visiting local elementary school kids and reading to them was the highlight of the 2008 trip to Florence.

"They kind of roll out the red carpet for you," said senior punter Alex Miller. "You don't feel like a Division II athlete when you're down there, but at the same time, you just can't sit there and take it all in. You've got to remember that you've still got a job to do, and you've got to stay focused because you're down there for a reason."

Most of the returning UMD players who saw extensive action in the 2008 title game are in the kicking game, where Miller and kicker David Nadeau return, as well as on defense, where the Bulldogs have five senior starters and four junior starters.

Older players like Fechtelkotter are helping the younger players, answering questions and letting them know what the schedule will be like this week. With practice and game preparation, it makes for some busy days in what is ultimately a longer road trip than the Bulldogs are used to.

Then you add school to the mix. Finals for some players begin Saturday, but instructors are flexible in working around the players' schedules.

"That was a great experience last time down there. They do a wonderful job of hosting the event," UMD coach Bob Nielson said of Florence. "We had a number of guys on this team who were part of that, and that group will provide some leadership as far as understanding the schedule and expectations. Hopefully there is some carryover value in that.


"We're excited to be in this position. They understand that they have a chance to win a national championship on Saturday, but they also understand we're going to play an outstanding football team, and we're going to have to play our best."

Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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