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Plenty To Smile About North Dakota wrote a happy ending to its upbeat season, winning a national title

Dec. 17, 2001
Dec. 17, 2001

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Dec. 17, 2001

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Plenty To Smile About North Dakota wrote a happy ending to its upbeat season, winning a national title

After Grand Valley State scored a touchdown to take a 14-10 lead
with 2:46 left in last Saturday's Division II championship game
in Florence, Ala., no one in Braly Stadium wore a bigger smile
than North Dakota senior wideout Dan Graf. That was a bit
peculiar, because Graf's team was losing, but it's even more
unusual when anyone is wearing a bigger smile than Graf. If life
handed Graf lemons, he'd happily make lemonade, but he'd be sure
to make several flavors of Kool-Aid as well in case someone
didn't care for lemonade. He's that nice.

This is an article from the Dec. 17, 2001 issue Original Layout

So when quarterback Ryan Brady put Grand Valley State on top
with what appeared to be a game-winning 12-yard run, Graf simply
grinned and found something positive to cling to. "This is what
you dream about: two minutes and 40-some seconds and a chance to
win a championship," said Graf. "You can't ask for anything
better." The Fighting Sioux put an even bigger smile on Graf's
face when they drove 80 yards in nine plays, capped by a
one-yard touchdown run by Jed Perkerewicz that gave North Dakota
a 17-14 win and its first national championship.

One of the few things Graf doesn't like is getting roughed up,
which explains why he didn't play football at Aberdeen (S.Dak.)
Central High as a freshman or sophomore. "I was so little [5'9",
120 pounds], I always got pounded," says Graf, who is now 6 feet,
180 pounds, of his experience in junior high.

Nonetheless, before his junior year the team's quarterback, Josh
Heupel, talked his buddy into coming out for the team, and he
was used sparingly as a defensive back. As a senior Graf played
receiver and safety in addition to returning kicks. Heupel wound
up at Oklahoma and led the Sooners to the national title last
season. Graf got a scholarship to North Dakota, and after
redshirting as a freshman, he scored on the first three
receptions of his career en route to becoming the school's
alltime leading receiver, with 142 catches.

On Saturday, Grand Valley State limited Graf to three catches
for 41 yards, though the first, a 27-yarder on the second play
of the game, set up a field goal. Although they allowed only
15.4 points per game, the Lakers are not normally known for
their defense. When your offense scores 58.4 points per game and
your star quarterback, Curt Anes, throws 48 touchdown passes,
the defense tends to get overlooked.

However, in Grand Valley State's first-round playoff game,
against Bloomsburg, Anes was knocked out with a dislocated left
knee. In the next game, Anes's backup, Todd Wojciechowski, was
sidelined with bruised ribs. That forced Grand Valley State
coach Brian Kelly to go to Brady, a wideout who had been an
option quarterback in high school. Brady rallied the Lakers to a
33-30 win over Saginaw Valley State in the second round. The
next week Kelly rotated Wojciechowski and Brady in a semifinal
win over Catawba, and he did the same against the Fighting Sioux.

Without Anes the Lakers could not move the ball consistently
against North Dakota's rugged defense, but they put together an
impressive 10-play drive in the fourth quarter. Trailing 10-7,
the two Lakers quarterbacks drove the team 81 yards, including
Brady's scamper up the middle. That in turn put the game in the
hands of North Dakota junior quarterback Kelby Klosterman, which
seemed to Sioux fans like a shaky proposition at best.

Statistically, at least, Klosterman had a miserable day,
completing only 8 of 27 passes for 139 yards. When he ran the
ball, things didn't go much better. On a sweep in the third
quarter he took a hit, which left him with clouded vision for the
rest of the afternoon. Still, he was at his best when it counted
most. Facing a potential game-ending fourth-and-two on the last
drive, he gained seven yards on another quarterback sweep. Four
plays later, again facing fourth down, he dumped a quick pass to
wide receiver Luke Schleusner, who got open with the help of a
pick from Graf and ran 58 yards to the Grand Valley State
one-yard line, setting up Perkerewicz's game-winning run.

The postgame revelry marked the first of many celebrations that
Graf will partake in this month. On Dec. 18 he'll take his last
exam before graduating with a degree in fisheries and wildlife
biology, and 11 days later he'll marry Beth Klancher, whose
brother Kevin is a former Fighting Sioux quarterback. As Graf
posed for pictures with the championship trophy, the huge grin on
his face made a little more sense than the one he'd sported an
hour earlier. It was still the biggest in the stadium, but this
time his teammates offered plenty of competition.

COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERS The Sioux drove 80 yards to set up Perkerewicz (above) for the winning score.