FORT WAYNE — It’s a good thing Nick Brickens and Duke Blackwell grew accustomed to winning while playing football at New Palestine. The pair certainly has needed it at the University of St. Francis.
After playing in back-to-back state finals with the Dragons, including a 2014 Class 5A state title, Brickens and Blackwell used a strong gridiron pedigree to smoothly transition to the college ranks. And in just their first season with the Cougars, Brickens and Blackwell took part in something most athletes can only dream of — a national championship run.
Although they received little to no playing time, the duo claimed another piece of hardware after No. 4 St. Francis defeated No. 2 Baker University 38-17 on Dec. 17 for the NAIA National Championship, which was played at Municipal Stadium in Dayton Beach, Florida.
Blackwell, who was used on the scout team most of the season, was able to travel with the Cougars for the national title game while Brickens, who redshirted this year, made the journey south with a group of guys on the team.
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“It was cool to see all of the people who made it down from Fort Wayne,” Brickens said. “The atmosphere was awesome. It was surprising to me to see how many people showed up.”
Now, in three seasons, the 2016 New Palestine graduates have lost just two games.
In 2014, as juniors, Brickens and Blackwell helped the Dragons cruise to a 15-0 record, including a 77-42 win against New Prairie at the state finals. A year later, in their final season of high school, the pair aided New Palestine in a return trip to Lucas Oil Stadium, where their comeback bid against Fort Wayne Snider fell just short.
In the championship game against the Panthers, Blackwell was nearly unstoppable and finished with 10 receptions for 328 yards and three touchdowns. Brickens finished with 74 rushing yards, handled the punting duties, collected 87 yards on kick returns and added five tackles on defense.
This season at St. Francis, though, Blackwell played in five games total and caught two passes against Lindenwood and Concordia Universities during the regular season for a total of 57 yards.
“Since I played during the regular season, my redshirt was pulled,” Blackwell said. “I tried to give our starters good looks so they would be ready for the games. Here and there, I would get repetitions with the (starters).”
Brickens, meanwhile, attempted to earn playing time from multiple positions. He spent most of his time as a safety but also saw time in practice punting the ball, which was definitely unexpected — to him anyway.
A jack of all trades, Brickens was recruited for his versatility and actually doesn’t even know what position he will play next season.
“Right now it is up in the air,” he said. “I’ll know more during spring ball coming up. Whatever helps the team.”
This season, St. Francis finished with a 13-1 record, which included a 5-1 mark in the Mideast League of the Mid-States Football Association behind No. 1 Marian (6-0).
To begin the NAIA Football Championship series, the Cougars handled No. 11 Missouri Valley College, 79-20, before topping No. 5 Morningside College 42-35 in a come-from-behind win. They trailed by 20 points just before halftime.
From there, St. Francis rolled over No. 3 Reinhardt University, 42-24, on way to its national title victory against Baker.
At New Palestine his senior season, Brickens played for the South squad in the IFCA All-Star Football Classic and was named to the Associated Press All-State team. He also was named IFCA 5A Senior All-State and All-Hoosier Heritage Conference.
He finished with 1,627 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns and added 66 tackles (11 for loss). As the team’s punter, he averaged 38.2 yards per kick.
Blackwell, in addition to the impressive championship game performance, finished with a team-high 1,148 receiving yards and 17 scores his senior season. He was named an AP All-State Honorable Mention, All-Hoosier Heritage Conference and holds the career touchdown and receiving yard records at New Palestine.
Brickens and Blackwell both noted, with the help of the Dragons’ program, how easily they fit in at a much higher level of competition. Although the speed is different, they both agreed, playing for a disciplined coach in Kyle Ralph was highly beneficial. Six players from their class went on to the next level, which was the most in the program’s history.
“(New Palestine) taught me how much work and commitment it takes to be on a good football team and what is expected of me from the team,” Blackwell said. “You can’t win championships without hard work and commitment.”
Added Brickens: “It was an easy transition because the coaches are similar. The work ethic in the weight room and on the field and having good character all the time (is what New Palestine taught me).
“(I am) proud to be a part of the Dragon family.”
Nick Brickens, St. Francis
Position: Strong safety, punter
Academics: Business administration
Parents: Michael and Darcie
Duke Blackwell, St. Francis
Position: Wide receiver
2016: Scout team, played in five games
Parents: Donald and Maria