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Fargo North enjoying best start since 2012-13 season with mixed roster of veterans, youth

Fargo North has used a mixture of veterans and young players to put together the team's best start in eight seasons

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Fargo North's Nathaniel Fritel fires a shot on Devils Lake goalie Zach White at the Fargo Coliseum on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO — Owen Branson couldn’t wait to put on a blue and gold jersey. He grew up around the Coliseum, going to Fargo North boys hockey games.

Branson, now a sophomore, cracked the North roster this season, and has made an immediate impact for the Spartans. He’s the team’s top distributor through seven games with 13 assists and 18 points.

“It’s been awesome,” said Branson, a 6-foot, 170-pound center. “The level of hockey is a lot faster at high school, but I’m having a blast with it.”

Branson is one of eight sophomores in the varsity lineup, and gives a glimpse of some of the young talent suiting up for the 5-2 Spartans this season.

“We’ve got great senior leadership, and we’ve got talented young kids,” Spartans head coach Tyler Klein said. “It’s been a while since we’ve really had this amount of numbers on the north side. We finally feel like we’ve got a really good mix of young players that can come in and not really be stunned by the high school game.”

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Fargo North's Owen Branson skates around Devils Lake's Austin Kempel at the Fargo Coliseum on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. David Samson / The Forum
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The Spartans have used that mix of veterans and varsity newcomers to put together the program’s best start through seven games since the 2012-13 season.

“We’re pretty young, and I think we’re still learning a little bit, but we’re growing as a team for sure,” senior forward Nathaniel Fritel said. “We have a lot of good team camaraderie. But we still have a lot more to give.”

Both of North’s losses were close defeats and came against teams ranked in the top three in the state. The Spartans lost by a single goal to Fargo Davies, which was picked to finish third overall in the preseason coaches poll, and by two goals to top-ranked Grand Forks Red River.

“We have a lot of potential. The (losses) have been close games, but we’re not even close to being satisfied with that,” Fritel said. “We want to be up there on top. We know we can compete with those big teams, we just have to put our best game out there.”

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Fargo North's Nathaniel Fritel skates through Devils Lake defenders at the Fargo Coliseum on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. David Samson / The Forum
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Eight of the team’s 18 skaters are sophomores. Two sophomores center the top two lines and two more make up the second defensive pairing.

Branson, who played Bantams for the Fargo Freeze last year, centers the second line. Ray Walen centers the first, which features Fritel on right wing.

The 6-foot, 185-pound Fritel is the team’s leading scorer with 13 goals and 18 points on the year. The 5-foot-10 sophomore Walen has 13 points on 12 assists and a goal. The Spartans have meshed well early.

“Owen and Ray have really worked hard up front and blended in well with guys like Nathaniel and (senior forward) Brendan Richards, who really push the offensive envelope for us,” Klein said.

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Fargo North's Brendan Richards dishes off a pass to teammate Ray Walen during play against Devils Lake at the Fargo Coliseum on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. David Samson / The Forum
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The group gets along well, which has translated to the ice, Fritel said. That camaraderie has helped the team be consistent.

“We communicate really well. We’re still figuring each other out and developing that chemistry, but there’s no doubt in my mind that the boys will get there,” Fritel said. “We grow as a team every day.”

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The Spartans, who went 6-11 last season, were picked to finish fifth overall in the preseason poll. They haven’t won five of their first seven games since the 2012-13 season, which was also their last state tournament appearance.

“We definitely have some big goals ahead of us,” Klein said. “We're working hard everyday to make sure that we stay humble enough to understand that we haven't quite made it there and hungry enough to know that we need to keep fighting, and do everything we can so that we can put ourselves in great spots when January and February come around.”

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Fargo North's Gavin Connor shoots from the point against Devils Lake at the Fargo Coliseum on Friday, Dec. 10, 2021. David Samson / The Forum
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North is still working to find wins over the top teams in the East Region, but the pieces seem to be there, and Fritel and Branson are confident they’ll all come together.

“Once we find ‘it’ and start clicking for real, it’s going to be really special and even more fun than it already is,” Branson said.

North next plays West Fargo (3-2) at 7:30 p.m. Friday at West Fargo Sports Arena.

Carissa Wigginton is a high school sports reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead. A Fargo native, she graduated from Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Wigginton joined The Forum’s sports department in August 2019.
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