After a junior year interrupted by injuries, Maple Grove wide receiver Jake Wieneke emerged on many Friday nights last fall as the best football player on the field. By season's end, the 6-4 senior had caught a metro-leading 68 passes for 1,330 yards and scored 13 touchdowns.
Accolades poured in and postseason honors piled up, including a spot on the Star Tribune All-Metro first team, a testament to Wieneke's soft hands, remarkable body control and ability to catch passes in traffic.
Wieneke, who said he "always wanted to be a Gopher," waited to hear from the University of Minnesota. The call never came.
But out west, eyes watched keenly from Brookings, S.D.
Soon South Dakota State came calling, amid silence from Minneapolis. The Jackrabbits turned Wieneke's head with a scholarship offer and a chance to stand out in a welcoming Division I program.
While the Gophers search nationally to populate their roster and offer scholarships to relatively few in-state players, the four major universities across Minnesota's western border -- North Dakota, North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State -- are luring top players from what they have long considered a fertile college football breeding ground.
Fifteen Minnesotans are expected to sign national letters of intent at the four Dakota colleges, with as many as a dozen more still deciding as Wednesday's signing day approached. All four schools are NCAA Division I programs at the FCS (Football Championship Subdivision) level, formerly known as Division I-AA.
Traditionally viewed as a fallback for those who weren't recruited at college football's highest level, the Dakota schools these days are seen by many Minnesota players as more than a consolation prize. Last year 78 Minnesotans suited up across the four schools, which offer a decidedly smaller-town pull on the athletes.
"Everyone [in Brookings] goes to the games and knows all the players," Wieneke said. "I took a visit and it was amazing. I knew that's where I wanted to go."
A knee injury midway through the 2012 season ended Holy Angels linebacker Mikias Alipate's hopes for a BCS-level opportunity. Big Ten schools that had been recruiting Alipate -- whose older brother, Moses, is a redshirt junior tight end for the Gophers -- backed away. South Dakota State, however, did not.
"They stayed pretty much committed to me the whole time," Alipate said.
A big selling point was knowing others from the Twin Cities area were enjoying stellar careers at South Dakota State, including Zach Zenner, a running back from Eagan who earned All-America honors this fall.
"They're all there with something to prove," he said. "There's no sense of entitlement."
Bison pipeline to Minnesota
About three hours up Interstate 29 from Brookings is Fargo, home of reigning FCS champion North Dakota State. The Bison have long benefitted from Minnesota talent, winning 10 national championships with notable names who hailed from its eastern neighbor.
They include Blaine's Jeff Bentrim, a quarterback who won the Harlon Hill Award in 1986 as the top Division II player in the nation; St. Paul Central's Stacy Robinson, a wide receiver for the New York Giants' 1987 Super Bowl championship team, and Minneapolis North's Mike Favor, an All-America center who is now the principal at Cooper High School.
"Minnesota's population is so much greater than North Dakota's, so there's naturally more athletes," said Brent Vigen, offensive coordinator at North Dakota State.
"And with Minnesota being the only Division I school in the state, that leaves a lot of Division I athletes available. They can't all play in the Big Ten."
In 2012 there were 32 Minnesotans on the Bison's FCS championship roster. That helped convince Zach Ziemer of Lakeville North that North Dakota State was the right place for him.
"They have a winning tradition and a great program," said Ziemer, a 6-5, 280-pound offensive tackle. "The Minnesota connections played a part in it. Minnesota kids play there and are successful there."
Making the choice easy
Many of the expected Dakota signees admitted to dreaming of the day when they would don Minnesota's maroon and gold. But reality rearranges dreams, as Osseo's Bridge Tusler, the 2012 Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year, found out.
As far back as he could remember, Tusler had told friends he was going to play football at Minnesota.
"I wanted to play in 'the Cities,'" Tusler said. "I always said I would never play at one of those country schools. I was ignorant."
But the Gophers didn't recruit him. He originally committed to Northern Iowa, but a trip to South Dakota State changed his mind.
"They talked less about football and more about me as a person," Tusler said. "I was impressed. If I walked away from football, where would I want to go to school? That made the choice easy."
'Totally out of the blue'
Eastview tight end A.J. Stockwell never even considered playing for North Dakota until coaches there reached out to him after his junior year and offered him a scholarship based on nothing more than seeing him play on film.
"It was totally out of the blue," Stockwell said.
Stockwell was intrigued. If North Dakota had made such a bold gesture without knowing him, he owed them a visit to Grand Forks.
"I liked it," Stockwell said. "There are no pro teams. Everyone pays attention to the college teams. They really love the team and it's a program on the rise. I felt like it was a good place for me."
Aiming for the Gophers
Since 2007, the Dakota schools are 3-1 against Minnesota. North Dakota State defeated the Gophers in 2007 and again in 2011. South Dakota won in 2010. South Dakota State fell a field goal short, losing 16-13 in 2009.
Those results are not lost on their Minnesota recruits.
"We play them in 2015," Wieneke said. "If I can't go there to play, at least I can go there to try to beat them."