If it weren't for the warm reception, the California Kid might not have survived his first North Dakota winter.
"Oh, it gets a little chilly here," said Minot State women's soccer coach Jason Spain, a Downey High grad. "It was pretty cold that first winter, but the people are really nice and that way overshadows any of the cons."
The love affair continued on Monday, as students, administrators, boosters and fans packed Beaver Dam, Minot State's student union, for the NCAA Division II Championship selection show.
The Minot State women's soccer program, in just its third year of existence and second at the Division II level, will play Southwest Oklahoma State in the first round on Friday.
With a second-half goal and game-saving slide by Manteca's Breanne Hatfield, Minot State won the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Tournament on Sunday, edging Winona State 1-0 in the championship.
"They projected us 10th in the conference when the season started and we put that on the wall in the team room immediately," Spain said. "Our goal was to win from Day One."
He means that literally and sincerely.
Spain is the founding father of Minot State women's soccer, hired away from his Northern California soccer kingdom in 2009 to grow the sport in the Magic City.
This is his specialty, building competitive soccer programs from scratch. Spain began the one at Yuba College in 1997, revitalized another at Lassen Community College in 2005 and enjoyed unmatched success at Yuba's Sutter Union High.
His formula: Make lots of phone calls "millions," he says. Sleep in airports. Keep the car gassed up. And be prepared to live out of a suitcase and soccer bag.
"You just roll up your sleeves and get it done," he said.
Success has come quickly. The Beavers are 35-18-6 under Spain with a new addition for the school's trophy case.
"It's fun molding something from the ground up," said Spain, who played for Downey and Modesto Junior College before starting a career in coaching.
"The entire culture of our program was started three ago. It's a nice feeling. Sunday and (Monday) were the culmination of three years of hard work."
He's had some help from a few familiar faces.
Sierra High graduate and former MJC player Araia Berhane is an assistant coach, and Hatfield has become an impact player in her first year on campus.
The freshman from Manteca High preserved the Beavers' win when she cleared a shot off the goal line with 30 seconds left in the NSIC final.
"I'm going to recruit from California. I love home and Modesto will always be home," Spain said. "And when Manuel Pires (Sierra High, Manteca Futbol Club) gives a kid a reference like the one he gave Breanne Hatfield, we'll take the kid for sure."
Clovers and conversions
Pitman coach Brandon Harris has plucked a cultural icon from his Irish heritage and made it the glue of his football team.
Each week, the Pride reward each other with a red shamrock sticker.
The red shamrock, as explained to by a Pitman assistant, represents the love and support of family, and they collect in large bouquets on the back of the Pride helmets.
What warrants a red shamrock? It could be anything, from a touchdown or interception to an 'A' on a major test.
In keeping with that theme, here's a clover for Pitman's clever tactic during a 49-27 victory in the Harvest Bowl.
The Pride was 5-for-6 on fourth down conversions, which was bad news for tiring Turlock defense.
By extending its drives, Pitman forced the 'Dogs to chase backs Kody Brackett (170 yards), Brent Nelle (83 yards) and Mario Lewis (51 yards) around the field on rather tired legs.
"We were going 3 and 4 yards at a time. On fourth-and-short, the goal was to go for it," Harris said. "We were in four-down territory all half
just trying to stay ahead of the chains."
The personality of the game changed on Pitman's opening possession of the second half. A shootout for the first 24 minutes, the Pride engineered a 14-play, 72-yard drive that lasted more than 6 minutes.
Faced with a fourth-and-1 at the Turlock 4, Harris didn't deviate from the plan.
Brackett charged ahead for 3 yards and the first, and then scored the eventual game-winning TD three plays later.
The Pride's next possession featured much of the same. Lewis converted a fourth-and-1 at the Turlock 35 and moments later Brackett delivered the dagger, another 1-yard score.
"It's hard on the other team," Brackett said of fourth-down conversions. "Your confidence just goes down the tubes."
Walk for diabetes
On Saturday, friends of the American Diabetes Association will gather in the quad of Modesto Junior College's East Campus for a community walk and festival.
The event is from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. and will feature free foot scans and blood glucose checks.
Participants will walk one mile in honor of the 26 million that live with the disease. The Modesto group has also pledged to raise $2,600 to help fund ADA's education and research for a cure.
"We are committed to walk and raise money in this inspirational event, not only because 26 million people in the United States have diabetes, but because we personally know some of them, and want to do something about it," it reads on the group's fund-raising page.
To register or donate, visit diabetes.org/communitywalk. Registration is free, and the walk is optional.
James Burns is Regional Sports Content Editor of The Modesto Bee and Merced Sun-Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2324.