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Dave Campbell / AP Sports Writer, Published December 11 2010

Minn.-Duluth, Bethel chasing championships

MINNEAPOLIS – This has been a forgettable year for big-time football in Minnesota, with fired head coaches and losing records for both the Vikings and the Gophers.

Ah, but there are still a couple of championship contenders lurking in this land of frozen lakes. The University of Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs host Northwest Missouri State today in the NCAA Division II semifinals, and the Bethel University Royals play at Mount Union in a Division III semifinal game in Ohio the same day.

“As successful as we’ve been, it’s still a hockey school, still a hockey state,” said Bulldogs left guard Garth Heikkinen. “So we’re battling with that for fans and for respect, but you can’t help but be proud of all our success and what we’re doing up here.”

UMD won the title in 2008, beating NMSU, which has played in five straight national championship games. Grand Valley State in Michigan has been another perennial Division II power for the rising Bulldogs to deal with.

“I think people are starting to respect us,” UMD quarterback Chase Vogler said. “Obviously we don’t have the legacy that Grand Valley or Northwest Missouri has, but we’re getting there.”

UMD coach Bob Nielson doesn’t want his players to be too concerned with such perceptions, but with a roster heavy with Minnesotans – plus plenty of Wisconsinites from across the border – there’s a certain amount of local pride the Bulldogs are carrying.

“We’re very much an Upper Midwest team,” Nielson said. “Our guys understand that they’re playing for each other and they’re playing for themselves, but we’re also playing for and representing this area and the university in this region.”

The Bulldogs aren’t alone as a Minnesota small-college standout. Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference rival St. Cloud State took UMD to overtime in a playoff game two weeks ago. Then there’s Bethel, a private school in the Twin Cities suburb Arden Hills. The Royals beat Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champion and previously undefeated

St. Thomas in the quarterfinals last week.

Bethel (12-1), like the Bulldogs, relies on a powerful running game and a rugged, disciplined defense. In the postseason for the sixth time in 11 years, the Royals have won all three of their 2010 playoff games on the road. Their fourth trip is arguably the toughest, at the 10-time national champions. Mount Union (13-0) beat Bethel in the semifinals three years ago 62-14 and have advanced to the final four 16 straight times.

“There’s some good football being played at all levels, and hopefully people in the state take a little pride in that as well,” Nielson said.

The Bulldogs are gearing up for a cold game on their campus, with the forecast calling for steady snow, a kickoff temperature in the low-to-mid-teens and a subzero wind chill.

UMD has been promoting the game with heat-related themes, encouraging students and residents to brave the brisk conditions by offering free hand warmers, free hot chocolate and a fire pit area for people to huddle around.

The cold ought not to faze the Bulldogs, who have endured the midseason loss of star running back Isaac Odim as well as the recent suspension of their leading wide receiver and their starting tight end for violating team rules.

“One, two or three guys don’t really make a football team,” Vogler said.

Indeed, depth and character are critical attributes that UMD can boast.

“I would just say that a big part of it is the unselfishness of each guy,” Heikkinen said. “Just that right kind of blue-collar work ethic. Everyone just understands they’ve got to do their part.”