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College update: Twice teammates, Gehlen alumni share Morningside success

Thursday, November 15, 2012

(Photo contributed) Three Gehlen Catholic School alumni, Devin Groenhagen, Jordan Sitzmann and Micah Neary, are playing together again as part of the 2012 Great Plains Athletic Conference champion team, the Morningside College Mustangs. They are pictured here celebrating with the GPAC trophy.
Jordan Sitzmann, Devin Groenhagen and Micah Neary know what it's like to suit up in the same uniform and step onto the gridiron together.

They played together on Gehlen Catholic School's football team a few years ago.

Now they've traded their green and gold in for maroon and white.

The trio of athletes now play for Morningside College, in Sioux City, where they helped the team earn the title Great Plains Athletic Conference Champions -- the second year in a row for the Mustangs.

"It's nice to be able to play with them again," said Sitzmann, who punts for Morningside. "Usually you don't get that opportunity. Once you get out of high school you usually don't get to play with the same guys again."

Groenhagen said he also enjoys playing alongside his former Gehlen teammates.

"You see them improve as football players," he said. "It's a lot of fun."

A sophomore defensive end for the Mustangs, Groenhagen said that college ball has helped him make personal gains as a team member, too.

"It's a chance to play at a higher level," he said. "And the team is really close. I think it's something special."

The Mustangs topped the GPAC conference with a 10-0 season record, and the team is now heading into the NAIA Championship Series playoffs strong.

Morningside College will host Montana Tech in a first round game in the 2012 NAIA Football Championship Series at 1 p.m. this Saturday.

Last year Morningside got upset in the first round of the NAIA playoffs.

"This year I think we're a completely different team," Sitzmann said. "We really like to go out and play for each other. Everybody on the team is such good friends that no one wants to let anyone down."

Neary, a freshman who blocks for Morningside as second offensive tight end, said the atmosphere at the college level is a change from playing high school football -- and he likes it.

"You're closer to your teammates. It's different than in high school because you're around them more and it takes more teamwork," he said. "It's difficult but you work together."

Being able to play on the same team with two former Gehlen teammates has helped with the transition, Neary said.

"It's nice going to a place where you already know some people," he said. "You feel like you're closer to your team because you've already been with them for four years before that."

Neary said Sitzmann and Groenhagen have encouraged him, along with others on the team, giving hints and pointers in his first year with the Mustangs.

Morningside's head coach, Steve Ryan, said it's a little unusual to have so many students on the team all from the same high school.

"We have other examples of it on our team, and largely because most of our guys are local, and they just have a great experience, then more and more guys from the same team come," Ryan said. "Occasionally it happens, but typically it's always from really good western Iowa programs like Gehlen or Heelen."

Ryan said all three Gehlen alumni are good contributors to the team.

Sitzmann, now a junior, was the first of the three to join the Mustang team.

he came in as a safety, red-shirting his freshman year with the Mustangs.

"I kinda got tossed around my first two years," the Le Mars native said. "I've played every position on defense here except for defensive line."

His sophomore year, the team was looking for a punter.

"People tried out, and I ended up winning the job," Sitzmann said. "They kind of told me after that I couldn't do anything else because they didn't want me to get hurt."

This year, Sitzmann kicked 43 of the team's 44 punts this year, a total of 1,557 yards with an average kick of 36.2 and his season long punt being 65 yards.

Groenhagen, of Le Mars, signed to play with Morningside and joined the team the following year, playing defensive end for the Mustangs.

This year he's tallied two total tackles, one solo and one assist in varsity play.

"I enjoy it a lot," the sophomore said.

Neary, of Merrill, was the third to join the Mustang team. His role as offensive tight end is new to him. He found success at Gehlen as an offensive center and on the defensive line.

"I originally came in (to Morningside) as an offensive lineman. They moved me to tight end and I've been starting ever since about the middle of the season," he said. "It's a lot different. I'm used to playing inside and the middle of the line, now I'm lining up outside."

Another Plymouth County native, sophomore linebacker Tanner Bundy, of Akron, also is on the Morningside roster.

Sitzmann, Groenhagen and Neary say playing college ball keeps them plenty busy.

"We practice all the time. It's kind of like a second job," Groenhagen said. "And even when we're not practicing, we're lifting or watching film."

Neary said he's usually lifting three times a week, with daily two-hour practices plus meetings.

Often, that means "doing football almost the whole day," he said.

"It's a lot more effort, a lot more time. The season is a lot longer and the games are more intense," Neary said. "There's just a higher level of playing. It's tougher to play."

Sitzmann estimates he spends about 18 hours a week on football activities.

"You've really got to be able to manage your time and get your schoolwork done," he said. "You can't procrastinate because you never know when the coach is going to say, 'hey, we're going to stay out later today,' or 'we're going to get an extra lift in,' or 'the meeting's going to go long today because it's going to be an important week.'"

When players do get work done on time, they can celebrate with the team on Saturday nights after games and not have to go home and do homework, Sitzmann said.

All the hard work is 100 percent worth it, the three Gehlen alumni said.

"I never regret my decision to play college football," Sitzmann said. "It's a lot of fun being part of the team and having a great group of guys to hang out with every day and fun coaches. Every day at practice it's kind of fun, it takes your mind off school and allows you to just go out and have fun."

Groenhagen said he's looking forward to the 2012 NAIA playoff games.

"I can't wait. Saturday is our first one," he said.

He's glad Morningside, No. 3 in the NAIA's national ranking, will host Montana Tech, No. 14, on the Mustangs' home field.

Sitzmann said he is also eager for Saturday's matchup.

The coaches have been preparing them for whatever the Orediggers can dish out, he said.

"We're just going to go out and play our game," Sitzmann said. "Montana Tech is a good team, very fundamentally sound when it comes to special teams. They're fast. They get down the field fast. I think if we just play our game, we'll be all right."

Neary said the team is aiming to go as far as they can.

"We want to achieve our goal: a national championship, and to keep on improving and getting better everyday," he said.

Ryan said the Mustang coaches just talk to the team about one game at a time.

"That's the way the playoffs goes: you have a one-game season and then when that game is over you have another one-game season," he said. "Our guys are pretty focused on this week."

The parents of the three Gehlen alumni are enjoying watching their sons' college football careers.

They all come to every game, if possible.

Sitzmann's parents are Barry and Julie Sitzmann, of Le Mars.

Groenhagen is the son of Jerry and Sally Groenhagen, of Le Mars.

Neary's parents are Jeff and Kathy Neary, of Merrill.

The players said they appreciate the support from family and friends at games.

Jordan's mom, Julie, said she's glad her son chose Morningside, so they'd be able to come see him play.

This year's NAIA national championship game will be in Georgia, and Julie said they'll probably go cheer the Mustangs on if they make it.

"If our kids are playing, we do what we can to watch them," she said.

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