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Kevin Schnepf, Published February 06 2013

Schnepf: Wyndmere-Lidgerwood's Illies makes it official with Bison

Fargo - As peculiar as it may seem, Jeff Illies was debating whether to play college football at North Dakota State or Minnesota State Moorhead.

No brainer, right? After all, NDSU is the two-time defending national champion at the Football Championship Subdivision level while MSUM has won only 10 games in the last five seasons at the NCAA Division II level?

Illies, the four-sport standout from Lidgerwood, N.D., weighed his options carefully – delaying his final decision long enough to prompt NDSU head coach Craig Bohl to make one last pitch.

Wednesday morning in Lidgerwood High School, Illies made it official by signing a letter of intent to play at NDSU.

“I always knew that I wanted to go as big as I could,” said Illies, whose older brother Kelly plays football at Valley City State.

There was a part of Illies that wanted to follow in his brother’s footsteps and play at a smaller school. He liked the idea of playing right away at MSUM – a program that is slowly rebuilding its scholarship funding.

But in the end, he was willing to pay his dues at NDSU – most likely taking next year off as a redshirt with hopes of adding 40 pounds to his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame so he can play tight end.

“I love catching the ball,” said Illies, who was also told he could become a linebacker. “I just hope to do my part wherever they think I can help.”

It’s that unselfish attitude – plus a whole lot of athletic talent – that has made Illies one of a few from Lidgerwood to make it to the so-called “big time.” The southeastern North Dakota town of 649 residents produced Ann Trinka, a basketball player at Texas A&M in the early 1980s; Randy Harles, a University of North Dakota football lineman in the early 1980s who eventually tried out for the CFL’s Winnipeg Blue Bombers; and Pat Smykowski, an All-American basketball player at NDSU in the late 1980s.

Wednesday, Illies was one of two North Dakotans to sign with NDSU. He will be one of 15 North Dakotans on next season’s roster. He’s hoping eventually he can continue the trend of major contributions from North Dakotans – like wide receiver Ryan Smith of Wahpeton, linebacker Travis Beck of Munich and nose guard Ryan Drevlow of Gwinner.

“Jeff can do a lot of different things, whether he’s a tight end or a linebacker,” said Bison head coach Craig Bohl, who was well-noticed when he attended one of Illies’ 9-man football games last fall.

Illies’ mother Janice tried to introduce herself, but because of NCAA recruiting rules, Bohl could not speak with her. So while Janice ran the scoreboard clock during Wyndmere-Lidgerwood’s game against Richland, she could see Bohl sitting in the stands near her mother, two sisters and one brother.

One of Janice’s other brothers is Ron Becker, an all-stater who led Wyndmere to the 1971 Class B boys basketball championship before playing at UND. Janice’s husband, Gerry, was a standout in track and football and Lidgerwood.

The bloodlines certainly explain why Illies is an all-state football player, one of the leading scorers on the 10-6 Lidgerwood-Wyndmere boys basketball team, a standout hurdler and jumper in track and field and a catcher with a rocket arm and quick bat in American Legion baseball.

“If he lived in a warm-weather climate, we’d be talking baseball about him,” said Lidgerwood athletic director Mark Wisnewski, who has known Illies since he was a first-grader. “And I’m convinced he could be a Division II basketball player.”

Janice will tell you that her son’s favorite sport is the one he is currently playing. But Illies says he prefers football.

“The feeling I get when I play football, it doesn’t compare to anything else,” he said. “I’m excited to see where my abilities take me. I just feel very blessed for the opportunity.”

Readers can reach Forum Sports Editor

Kevin Schnepf at (701) 241-5549

or kschnepf@forumcomm.com