FARGO — The best 24 hours of the year in Park River, N.D., is annually the Fourth of July celebration, where between 7,000 and 9,000 show up in the small town in the northeast part of the state. It even happened last year during the restricted times of the pandemic shutdown.
The day to honor Uncle Sam, which includes a parade, fireworks and a street dance, may get a challenge in popularity on Saturday. That’s when the University of North Dakota plays at North Dakota State in a matchup of two teams ranked in the top four in the Division I FCS top 25 rankings.
The tight end for UND is Adam Zavalney. The middle linebacker for NDSU is Jackson Hankey. Both are from Park River.
Dan Stenvold, the Park River mayor in his 13th year, predictably played it down the middle when asked about the town divide between the two universities.
“I’ll say it’s down the middle, 50-50,” he said. “You can flip a coin either way. I honestly don’t know. I’m going to cheer for both of them. Both are outstanding young men. I don’t know if anybody has cut jerseys in half or anything like that but they might.”
To exemplify the divided allegiance, Stenvold pointed to an annual fundraising auction to benefit the First Care Health Center & Rural Health Clinic in Park River. NDSU and UND items routinely bring in big bucks.
“They bring in about the same amount of money,” said Stenvold, again playing the 50-50 card. “People here follow both of them. We’re so close, a lot of people graduated from UND and NDSU. I just think we’re lucky.”
Both football programs will tell you they’re lucky to have the quality of walk-ons of both players. Hankey, a 2017 Park River graduate, is in his second season as a starter and led the Bison in tackles with 127 on the 2019 FCS national championship team. It was the third-most in the Division I era behind Nick DeLuca (135 in 2015) and Grant Olson (148 in 2012).
Zavalney, a 2019 high school graduate, redshirted last season but has been a pleasant surprise so far in UND’s 4-0 start with three touchdowns among his four receptions. He came to UND as a 195-pound wide receiver, but is playing more of a receiving tight end at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds.
Park River carries a population of 1,400, although Stenvold hopes it will be higher in the next census. UND head coaches have for years touted their small-town roots: Former head coach Dale Lennon was from Knox, N.D., (population a few buildings off Highway 2) and current head coach Bubba Schweigert is from Zeeland (population 87).
“Park River is a lot bigger than Zeeland now,” Schweigert said, when asked about two players from Park River in this game. “That’s just awesome. I think it’s special for guys that grew up in the state and we want to do a good job of recruiting our home state and give guys an opportunity. We’re sure glad Adam is in our program and we think he’s going to get better and better.”
Hankey will go down as one of the top walk-on scores in NDSU’s Division I era. That’s saying something considering a long list that includes former players like offensive linemen Joe Haeg and Bryce Messner, defensive linemen Brian Schaetz, Matt Biegler, Caleb Butler and Aaron Steidl and fullbacks Jedre Cyr and Garrett Malstrom. There certainly are others.
Hankey and Zavalney were multi-sport athletes at Park River. Hankey was the 2016 Class 1A senior athlete of the year in football for Park River Area, which also won state football titles 2014 and 2015. Academically he was ranked No. 1 in his class.
“It’s a big thing for our town obviously,” Hankey said of the UND-NDSU matchup. “But I’m not trying to think about it too much I guess. I stay off social media for that reason. I don’t need to see a lot of things that are said there or hear from UND fans back home or Bison fans back home. It’s different than when we play South Dakota State or Missouri State. There’s definitely a rivalry-type feeling to it and maybe some added pressure in that way. The goal is to try and focus on this as a football game, not necessarily focus on who we’re playing or the fans involved or the rivalry involved.”
Zavalney was all-state in football, basketball and baseball. He had offers to play junior college baseball, but verbally committed to UND for football early in his senior year of high school.
“Coming out of high school, a lot of people expected me to play baseball,” Zavalney said. “I think picking football was a shock for a lot of people.”
For both, the apples don’t fall far from the tree. Both of Zavalney’s parents attended UND. Adam said his father was recruited to UND to play football, but couldn’t play because of a medical condition.
“I knew that if UND or NDSU offered me that I would most likely pick UND because that is where my roots are,” Adam said. “I grew up coming to all the hockey games so I love this university and everything that goes with it. … Being from a small town in North Dakota, a lot of people are either NDSU or UND. North Dakota has hockey, NDSU has football. Coming to North Dakota to play football, I kind of want to change it to more of a football school than a hockey school.”
Both of Hankey’s parents and his older brother all graduated from NDSU in agriculture. For Jackson, the UND game isn’t new. His first home start was against the Fighting Hawks in 2019.
He sees a different UND team, one that looks more confident, he said.
“They’re starting to have some serious success and doing well on both sides of the football,” Hankey said. “They’re playing like a team that thinks they should win every game. They’re a confident group and rightfully so.”
Just like the groups he played with at Park River. There’s no word if anybody asked North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum to make it Park River Day in the state, but it could just as well be.
Stenvold played football at the North Dakota State College of Science in Wahpeton and had a chance to play football at NDSU. A serious knee injury ended that dream. So if pressed on allegiance, he leans to NDSU.
But he’s also Mr. Mayor.
“I think it’s great this year both teams are doing as well as they are,” he said.