Photo: Photo by Maddie MacFarlane, Winona State Athletics
Photo: Photo by Maddie MacFarlane, Winona State Athletics
October 05, 2017 11:59 PM
It was a moment a long time in the making for Darren Beenken.
Even now, the former standout quarterback at Farmington High School finds it hard to put into words the emotion he felt taking the field for Winona State's season opener this year.
"I can't really even explain it," said the 6-foot-3, 210-pound fifth-year senior, who waited four years to earn the starting job for the Warriors - a team off to a 5-0 start.
"I just felt like I had the world to prove to everyone. I wanted to show what I could do. For four years, I felt like I hadn't had that opportunity. And now it was finally here."
Beenken - who threw for 1,661 yards and 12 touchdowns while leading Farmington to the Section 5-3A title game as a senior in 2012 - was recruited heavily by Division II schools throughout the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference.
He was even one of 50 prep players invited to Junior Day at the University of Minnesota prior to his senior season. And he drew recruiting interest from North Dakota as well.
But he chose Winona State.
"I'd heard so much about this area and I'd never seen it," he said. "Southeastern Minnesota is such a beautiful place. The town and people here are just amazing.
"I'd never been to Winona before. So when I visited, it really opened up my eyes. I knew it was where I wanted to be."
But that meant joining the Warriors as part of a freshman class that also included Byron graduate Jack Nelson. Nelson took over the starting job early in his freshman season, after what head coach Tom Sawyer said was a tough choice between he and Beenken.
And he never let it go, finishing his four years under center as the NSIC's all-time leader in both passing yards (12,007) and touchdown passes (102).
Thus, Beenken, who ended up redshirting as a freshman in 2013, spent the past four years backing him up.
"He handled it better than most kids would," Sawyer said. "Most kids would have transferred or just given up on football. But he stepped up and handled his role really well. He was a true team guy."
In a twist, Nelson - who had rookie tryouts with both the Vikings and Colts this past offseason - is back at Winona State as an assistant coach.
So now it is he looking on and offering advice to Beenken on the field.
"He's up top during games," Beenken said. "And at halftime, we talk. He lets me know what he's seeing and what adjustments we need to make.
"In practice, if he sees my ball coming off high, or I'm missing low, he's there to offer a quick tip. He's very meticulous. I've always admired that about him."
Games to watch: Week 6
Concordia-Moorhead (2-0 MIAC, 4-0 overall) at St. Thomas (3-0 MIAC, 4-1), 1:10 p.m. Saturday
Another big MIAC matchup as unbeaten Concordia, ranked No. 20 in the most recent D3football.com Division III poll, faces off against St. Thomas, ranked No. 6, for sole possession of first place in the conference standings.
It's also a chance for revenge for the Cobbers, who looked to have the Tommies beat last season in Moorhead before Nick Waldvogel made a sliding 21-yard touchdown catch with two seconds remaining that lifted St. Thomas to a 23-20 victory. But Concordia will be playing without senior quarterback Michael Herzog, who injured a foot in a 27-17 win over Gustavus last week. Sophomore Blake Kragness will make his first collegiate start in his place.
Senior running back Chad Johnson has 34 career touchdown runs, tying him for the top spot in school history. St. Thomas, meanwhile, is coming off a 57-25 win over Augsburg last week.
Winona State (1-0 NSIC South, 5-0 overall) at Sioux Falls (1-0 NSIC South, 5-0 overall), 6 p.m. Saturday
Winona State is ranked No. 22 in one national Division II poll. Sioux Falls is ranked No. 6. The two are part of an early four-way tie atop the NSIC South Division standings with Minnesota State-Mankato (1-0, 5-0) and Wayne State (1-0, 3-2). They also boast the two stingiest defenses in the conference when it comes to allowing points. Sioux Falls is allowing an average of just 6.2 points per game. The Warriors are allowing just 11.6.
Cougars senior Max Mickey leads the NSIC in rushing with 873 yards and eight touchdowns.
Beenken admits there were times he felt frustrated - maybe even like packing it in. Then he'd remember the guys he was playing with.
And those thoughts vanished.
"I felt so in-tune with this team the whole time," he said. "Even off the field, or in the locker room. From the youngest guys to the oldest guys. Everybody treated me with so much respect. They knew the talent I had and they were so supportive.
"As I got older, I got more comfortable with my role. But the first two years were really difficult. And the older guys really picked me up. They helped me through the tough times because they'd been through them too."
The youngest of five brothers, he was also able to draw on the experiences of his older siblings. That included his brother Eric, a talented prep basketball player at Farmington who cracked his skull during a game as a junior and was unable to continue playing contact sports.
Darren was still just a kid at the time.
"I was up in the stands with my friends," he recalls. "Horsing around and eating candy. I saw it happen, then an ambulance was coming. I was really confused. I didn't know what was going on. The athletic director finally came up and got me. He brought me down and explained what was happening."
"It was pretty scary at the time."
Eric went on to graduate from Minnesota State-Mankato. He's now a CPA managing a firm in Owatonna. Two other older siblings - Brent and Greg - did go on to play college football for a time. But they eventually gave up the sport.
They all encouraged Darren to hang in there, even when the waiting seemed to be (to quote the late, great Tom Petty) the hardest part.
Another brother, Jared, was not into sports, but was more talented musically. Beenken's mother, a nurse, also taught piano. His father, an accountant, also sang in a choir.
"They all supported me," he said.
"They knew the talent I had, and that I just had to bide my time and my turn would come."
That turn has now arrived and Beenken has taken advantage. He threw for 308 yards and two touchdowns in his first collegiate start - a 30-20 win over Bemidji State on Aug. 31.
And he's already thrown for 908 yards and six touchdowns, despite being held out of a win at Minot State two weeks ago with a foot injury.
"That was a killer," Sawyer said. "He was standing next to me on the sideline and I told him he'd been standing next to me for four years. The last thing I wanted was for him to be standing next to me again.
"But it was important just to give him an extra week to heal up."
Beenken returned to help his team down Upper Iowa 37-7 last week. The Warriors - ranked No. 22 in one Division II national poll - improved to 5-0 heading into a key NSIC South Division matchup with fellow unbeaten Sioux Falls, ranked No. 6, at 6 p.m. Saturday in Sioux Falls.
"This is what I envisioned it being like," Beenken said of his season so far.
"I've seen this team forming for four years now. It's what kept me hanging on all this time. And the start we've gotten off to has me more and more excited to see how we end up finishing this off."
Updated: October 05, 2017 11:59 PM
Created: October 04, 2017 02:49 PM
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