Tigers’ offense shines amid key absences: Lester’s 4 TD tosses highlight DWU’s day

Dakota Wesleyan University's Zachary Lester delivers a pass against Briar Cliff earlier this season at Joe Quintal Field.

Dakota Wesleyan University’s offense has taken significant strides the past two games, even if before Saturday’s 35-16 win over Jamestown (N.D.) pointed toward possible regression.

The Tigers didn’t have offensive coordinator Steve Schneider and running backs/tight ends coach Daniel McGee due to COVID-19. On the field, they entered their third game without receiver Daniel Libolt, who has become a staple to the offense during his three seasons.

Despite being short-handed, DWU topped 30 points for the first time this season and recorded a season-high 355 yards on 5.8 yards per play.

“There was a lot of adversity for our guys,” DWU coach Ross Cimpl said. “A lot of adversity for everybody involved in our program. … There’s a lot of stuff that happened last week that turned out to be a real positive situation for us.”
With Libolt out for the season, younger players have had to step up. Now, nearing the end of the season, the younger players that didn’t have a normal offseason due to COVID-19 are starting to mesh, and there have been tangible results.

DWU (3-5) has scored 59 points and racked up 649 yards in its past two wins compared to 33 points and 854 during its 0-3 start. It faced two of the top teams in the Great Plains Athletic Conference -- Northwestern and Dordt -- to open the season, whereas Briar Cliff and Jamestown are a combined 2-13. But the Tigers also only had seven points and 251 yards against 2-6 Hastings.


Better performances have turned into victories. The offensive line continues to improve, Emery native Jamin Arend reached 100 rushing yards (109) for the first time in his career on Saturday and Zachary Lester’s transformation from a backup last year to a full season as a starter is paying dividends.

“Guys are still making progress, which says a lot about our guys,” Cimpl said. “With all the uncertainty that we have on a daily basis, it’s pretty impressive to see our guys sticking with it.”

Heading into the season finale against Concordia (Neb.), the offense can still be more consistent, though. DWU’s struggles to finish drives haunted it early against Briar Cliff, while it didn’t fully find a groove until the second half against the Jimmies. Also, Arend fumbled for the third straight week (second lost), while Cimpl noted Lester’s decision-making and dropped passes in the first half.

Still, without his No. 2 option in the pass game, Lester was named the GPAC offensive player of the week. He completed 16 of 24 passes for 199 yards and four touchdowns.

Among quarterbacks with at least 100 pass attempts in a season, Lester is on pace to become the first since Dillon Turner in 2017 to complete more than 50 percent of his passes in a season (59.2 completion percentage, 1,395 yards, 14 TDs, 7 INTs).

“I think he did a much better job as the game went on, just managing the game and making the throws we needed him to,” Cimpl said. “We still had a couple of drops that I think we can have and make that percentage even higher.”

It helps having a player like Mitchell native Spencer Neugebauer to throw to, as he had eight receptions for 63 yards and two touchdowns.

But the emergence of unheralded receivers has been just as crucial. Brandon Tukes had a key 22-yard catch on 3rd-and-4, which eventually led to a touchdown. Chance Sorensen opened the scoring with a 64-yard touchdown reception and Wagner native Preston Nedved caught his first career touchdown, as well.


“We’ve had to have some guys step up,” Cimpl said. “With Libolt being out, and most recently, Jakob Oxos being out, two of those slot guys that were really doing a lot of stuff with us.”

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