BELFIELD — Dave Hendrickson was in his second season as Heart River’s head football coach when he heard rumblings about two small, yet exceptionally fast eighth-grade running backs.
Planning to stick around for a while, Hendrickson decided he should check out the Cougars’ junior high games.
Hendrickson barely had to watch Seth Ewoniuk and Cole Hecker to realize he had a special pair of players waiting in the wings.
“I knew, after watching film for years and years, there was no question those two were going to develop into good athletes,” Hendrickson said. “They were good already as eighth-graders.”
Fast forward five years and the duo are the driving force behind the Cougars’ game-breaking Wing-T rushing offense that has helped the team compile a 16-3 record over the past two seasons following three straight 5-4 seasons with first-round playoff exits.
Ewoniuk holds practically every team rushing record.
Alongside of him, Hecker has steadily emerged as a player just as capable of breaking free for long touchdowns and piling up yards — and neither of them has let their somewhat diminutive size diminish their abilities.
Both players stand 5-foot-7. Hecker said he weighs 155 pounds and Ewoniuk marks himself at 147.
Hendrickson said, despite their size, Ewoniuk and Hecker have both developed into exceptional blockers and when the Cougars pass the little they do, they are also quarterback Tyson Kudrna’s first two receiver options.
“They’ve got the total package,” Hendrickson said.
That wasn’t always the belief though.
“When we were first coming up through the system, I thought I was too small to play football,” Ewoniuk said. “You know, it was just that feeling where maybe football is not my sport because I was too small. I guess I used my speed and I just worked hard in practice. That got coach to put me in as a freshman and then I had to prove myself. Then, once Hecker and I proved ourselves, he’s been relying on us to do it and we’ve responded.”
Have they ever.
Ewoniuk has rushed for 1,445 yards and 22 touchdowns this season. He has 4,167 rushing yards in his career and has scored 87 touchdowns, most of them on carries.
Hecker, with 35 fewer carries than Ewoniuk this season, has rushed for 912 yards and 13 touchdowns. In the past two years, he has rushed for 1,550 yards and 27 TDs.
“He has less carries than Seth,” Hendrickson said. “If it were equal carries, he might have equal yards.”
Both are also standout defensive backs. Ewoniuk had seven interceptions last season and two this year.
“I didn’t really expect me to do this good,” Hecker said with a smile. “But I figured Seth would. Growing up with him, he was always really athletic and he was always very competitive. I’m just really proud of him being able to break those records and being a part of the team when he did it.”
Records and statistics are beside the point today.
The No. 3-ranked Cougars (8-1) are in a do-or-die situation from here on out and travel to face Region 4 rival Hazen (7-2) at 12:30 p.m. in the Class 1A playoff quarterfinals.
The game is a bit of a sore subject around Belfield and South Heart these days.
Heart River beat Hazen 28-20 on Sept. 14. Its only loss was a 29-27 defeat at the hands of Killdeer on Sept. 28.
The three teams tied for the Region 4 title. Each lost only one league game and tiebreaker rules determined Hazen would be the top seed, Killdeer would get the No. 2 seed and Heart River — despite being ranked in the state media poll all season and having only one loss by two points — was the No. 3 seed.
Ewoniuk and Hecker said it was disappointing not to get a home playoff game — the Cougars won’t no matter what happens the rest of the way — but said the team quickly shrugged it off.
“We pushed everyone as hard as we could the whole week of practice (after the loss to Killdeer),” Hecker said. “We still continue to do that as much as we can.”
The Cougars are on a three-game win streak and have outscored their opponents 94-14 in those wins. They’re averaging 37.5 points per game this season with Ewoniuk and Hecker scoring 41 of the team’s 50 touchdowns.
In last Saturday’s 28-6 first-round victory over Watford City, Ewoniuk rushed for 164 yards and three touchdowns and caught a touchdown pass while Hecker rushed for 165 yards. They combined for 51 carries.
“Our linemen do an excellent job about knowing who to block,” Hendrickson said. “If they get on who they block — and I’ve said this repeatedly — all they (Ewoniuk and Hecker) need is a seam or a crease. They’ll get in it, they’ll get out of it and they’re on their way.”
As fast as they run, Ewoniuk and Hecker said they are soaking up every moment of their senior season.
“It’s kind of been a great experience being on this team the last four years,” Ewoniuk said. “It’s coming to an end now and I don’t really want it to end.”