By Norm Newell
Photography by Thru Him Photography
Two things stand out very clearly when you talk to long time Henning and now Ottertail Central football coach Don Seipkes. He cherishes his close-knit family and enjoys greatly the times he has been able to spend with his wife Mary and their kids and grandkids in the Henning and lakes area. And he loves the game of football, easily evidenced by the fact he is in his 43rd year of coaching football, almost all as a head coach.
Don’s eyes light up when he talks about his family. He and Mary have three sons, Chad, Josh and Grant and a daughter, Abby. All three sons played football for Don, but being a dad first, he told the kids he would step down from coaching if it was uncomfortable for them. The boys recognized their dad’s love for the game and were happy to play for him. All three sons were on successful teams with son Grant a reserve on the 2000 state tournament team and a starter on the 2002 state team. Abby is a teacher in the Henning school system where Coach Seipkes spent 39 years teaching special education until he retired in 2011. Continuing the all-in-the-family theme, one of Coach Seipkes’ current assistant coaches is Ryan Emter, his son-in-law.
Seipkes graduated from Staples High School where he played football, basketball and ran track. He spent a couple of years at Brainerd Community College which had no football team at the time, so he played only basketball there. He finished his college years at Bemidji State where he got back into playing football for the Beavers.
Beginning his teaching career in Henning in 1972, Seipkes started his football coaching career when he became their head coach in 1973. He also assisted junior and senior high basketball for a number of years. Seipkes is well known in the area for his top level football teams over the years, but likely fewer people know he was also an excellent track coach. He put his own high school track experience to good use as the head boys and girls track coach for Henning, which combined with Battle Lake and Underwood in track to become Ottertail Central in 1990. He finished coaching track in 2003 but recalls some of the great athletes he had in the sport, including three state champions in girls track: Jenny Gronner (now Roisum) who was a three time state champ in the 400; Jenny Hollatz (now Kerzman) a long jump state champ; and Diane Kenyon also a long jump state champ.
There is no better start to your coaching career than to go to state in your first year and that’s what Seipkes did in 1973 with Henning. He coached Henning from 1973 to 1985, and continued as the head coach when they combined with Deer Creek. In 1990, Deer Creek then split off to join with Wadena, and Henning combined with Battle Lake. Don recalls his son Chad playing in the last Henning versus Battle Lake game before the two teams combined as Ottertail Central (OTC).
In 1990, legendary area coach (and now legendary referee) Chuck Evert was the head football coach for Battle Lake. Chuck and Don were then named co-head coaches of OTC until 1993 when Evert left for Pelican Rapids. Seipkes has been in charge ever since.
Asked what he enjoys the most about football Seipkes answers simply, “I enjoy the camaraderie with the coaches and players and the energy and enthusiasm the young men bring to the sport of football.” He doesn’t recall the specific won-loss records at each school (or combination) he’s coached and said he had to look up his overall record. Which by the way is 255 wins and 159 losses going into this season. Don remembers more specifically the players and what they have contributed and meant to the program. He takes great pride in the fact former players have come back to coach and mentor current players. For example, Eric Olson, the current defensive coordinator and teacher at Battle Lake, and Shawn Belmont, a former OTC quarterback who moved back to the area and has volunteered to help at practices.
Seipkes’ Ottertail Central teams have made the state tournament five times. In 2000, they were a state finalist; in 2002 they got to the 2nd round; in 2003 they lost in the first round and in 2004 they were the state runner-up. In 2010, the team lost in the semi-final. He declined to pick any one team as the best, saying they all had good attributes. Recalling some of the top players, he says Travis Christianson was a great running back for the 2000 team and still holds the rushing yardage record for OTC. Christianson went on to NDSU then transferred to play for Concordia. Seipkes remembers 2004’s quarterback, Kyle Belmont, who went on to make a name for himself playing for NDSU in their championship years as a strong safety and had NFL potential until injuries kept him out. He remembers the 2010 team as a great team effort, with 11 players playing the majority of the games both on offense and defense. Austin Skibness and Shelby Trosdahl stand out as a top lineman from that team.
“I have to credit our assistant coaches for OTC’s successes also,” stated Seipkes. Dan Peterka has been an assistant on the sidelines for 18 years, Eric Olson for 13 and Ryan Emter for eight. They have worked together so long now that the division of duties and sideline input goes smoothly and helps Don focus in on what’s happening with and to his team and what adjustments he can make for his team to be the most effective.
When asked how the game has changed, Seipkes noted, “The kids are bigger, faster and stronger each generation.” Noting they used to be lucky to have a 200-pound lineman, now many teams average 250 pounds or more in the line. “The kids are in the weight room more and there are more 7-on-7 summer leagues and summer camps.” Seipkes also noted, “Even my teams have a few more passes a game than we used to, which is true of many teams. Although I’m a big believer in the running game, you adapt your offense to the capabilities of your kids and if you have a good quarterback and receivers, you work in the pass more to keep defenses honest.”
Don has made it known to his athletic directors, his players and their parents that this will be his last year of coaching football. “The hardest part will be leaving the kids. They make you laugh and make you cry. But they keep you young and engaged in the school and community,” he says. “I love the kids and I love football, I’ll miss the practices, but we have a very close knit family and Mary and I have five grandchildren that we want to be spending more time with.” Seipkes also noted that the family connections are one of the best aspects of coaching teams in a smaller town. “Seeing the families all gather around the kids on the field after the game lends a special aspect to what this is all about.” After retiring from teaching in 2011, Seipkes has worked at Thumper Pond golf course, where he enjoys meeting and talking with golfers daily. He golfs himself and enjoys spending time at the lake cabin with family members. He doesn’t expect much retirement time going south for the winters, planning instead to enjoy snowmobiling and time with grandkids.
Henning Athletic Director, Randy Misegades, says Don will be missed when he is finished, “He is so well respected by the kids, the communities he serves and by the football coaching community. As a former athletic director himself, he takes care of all the little details around the football coaching job. I never have to worry about his program. He has represented stability and consistency throughout all his coaching years.”
Asked to note the best things about coaching football, Seipkes mentions first the opportunity to coach his three sons. He says that experience also gave him a much different perspective on coaching, respecting the parent’s view of how they would like their kids treated. Another enjoyable aspect is seeing the growth and maturity of the kids; taking pride in former players coming back as adults to share their experiences after graduation. Also, the special relationships built with the kids throughout the season make coaching worthwhile. The toughest part of coaching is at the end of the season with the departing seniors who have put years of work into the program. Most will be done and never play the sport or have that special camaraderie again.
In his last season, Seipkes has another top level team that has state tournament capabilities. At the time of this writing, his OTC Bulldogs are 7-0 and have beaten three state-ranked teams. “We have great kids and many are experienced, with several three-year starters back,” notes Seipkes. “We have good all-around athletes that play multiple sports and know what it takes to give it your all and play with passion and heart.” Seipkes likes to run the wing-T and has a quick backfield, led by fullback Cody Seedorf. They also have a quarterback in Tony Ukkelberg that can both run and pass well, making them hard to defend. Andrew Van Erp is a jack-of-all-trades receiver and also returns kicks. OTC has an athletic offensive line led by Ethan Franze and Cort Ebeling; an active defensive line with Daniel Ukkelberg usually leading the charge with his never-stop internal motor. The team also has four players in the defensive backfield that have two or more interceptions. In other words, all the parts needed for a run at state are there.
Regardless of how the season ends in the win-loss column, Don Seipkes will go out a winner. As a man who has the respect of his players, the parents and community supporters, the coaching fraternity, and the many followers of his high level football program throughout the state. He will be buoyed by a full complement of fond memories of relationships built with his teams. But most importantly to Don, he will be surrounded by his family and will begin making new memories with his grandchildren.