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Three WDP football players sign national letters of intent

Accompanied by their high school football coach Chris Greisen (back), West De Pere football players (l-r) Najeh Mitchell, Matthew Daanen and Thomas Walder all signed national letters to intent to play football in college. Greg Bates photo

By Greg Bates

Sports Editor

DE PERE – After a state runner-up finish in Division 2 in the fall, the West De Pere football team had some players garner quite a bit of college interest.

And rightfully so.

On Feb. 1, three seniors signed national letters of intent to play college football, and on Feb. 13, the three guys were honored with a ceremony at the high school.

Star running back Najeh Mitchell signed with the University of Minnesota Duluth, offensive lineman Matthew Daanen inked a deal with Michigan Tech University and defensive back Thomas Walder is off to Dordt University.

“I think it’s just so awesome for any kid to be able to go on and play this great game in college,” West De Pere football coach Chris Greisen said. “These three have worked extremely hard, and they’re good kids. They’ve each taken a little bit different paths, but they all got to the same place. They have the mentality, all three of them, to want to work, to put in the time. I couldn’t be more proud of them.”

Mitchell to play WR

After starring in the backfield for two years at West De Pere, it was inevitable Mitchell was going to be a hot commodity at the college level.

Mitchell had some talks with Division I schools, but he ultimately chose Minnesota Duluth, where he will move to wide receiver. Bulldogs wide receivers coach Chase Vogler was impressed by Mitchell’s ability as a game-changer.

“After talking to coach Vogler, I felt like he put trust in me, especially switching positions to receiver, that he was confident and I fit the scheme that they want,” Mitchell said. “Talking to [West De Pere defensive coordinator Kegan] Wirtz, who has played for them, I kind of learned before I got there. Ever since I took a visit, I loved everything about it and I loved the team.”

In Mitchell’s two-plus seasons as the Phantoms’ starting running back, he rushed for 3,017 yards on 520 carries (5.8 yards per carry) and 48 touchdowns. He also caught 68 balls for 1,003 yards and 12 touchdowns.

Having Mitchell split out on plays in West De Pere’s offense prepared him for his college assignment.

“I think it helped me a lot, especially because in those games I could be used more in the passing game and transitioning to receiver,” Mitchell said. “I feel confident in my ability — especially with my speed — that I can make the transition.”

Greisen, who got to coach Mitchell all three of his seasons, believes UMD will be a great fit for his former workhorse back.

“We all have our dreams and aspirations about going Division I and stuff, but ultimately, you go to a spot where they want you, and they really want Najeh,” Greisen said. “They have big plans for him; he’s such a dynamic athlete. People don’t realize how smart he is from a football standpoint. Our offense was not easy, and he picked it up and was a leader this past year in helping guys and telling guys what to do. We asked a lot of him, and he certainly did a great job.”

A first-team all-state selection this past season final for the Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch Award as the best running back in the state, Mitchell has always wanted to play college football.

“This has been a childhood dream of mine since I was 7 and I just want to thank all my teammates, coaches that helped me throughout this process. I wouldn’t be here without them, and they’ve been supportive all the way through,” Mitchell said.

He got additional offers from Bemidji State, Northern Michigan, Upper Iowa and Concordia St. Paul.

Mitchell also received a preferred walk-on offer to play running back at the University of Louisville, but he decided playing wide receiver at UMD was his best option.

According to Greisen, if the 5-foot-9 Mitchell was just two inches taller, he would have garnered interest from quite a few Division I programs.

“I don’t think my height really matters, I can jump, I can run, so I feel like I’ll be just as good as anybody as long as I am confident in myself,” Mitchell said.

Walder picks football

Growing up, baseball was Walder’s top sport.

He didn’t go out for the West De Pere football team until sophomore season, where at that point he was a wide receiver. That soon changed when Wirtz, the team’s defensive coordinator, saw what kind of a ball-hawk he had in Walder and switched him to defensive back.

“It was a great decision,” Walder said with a smile. “It was definitely the right fit for me. I had a blast.”

Even after being a starting defensive back for the Phantoms, Walder thought he would play college baseball. But that all changed during the recruiting process.

It turned out that football was his top priority.

“I think everything just came together. It was the best overall option for me with school and sports,” said Walder, who corralled three interceptions this past season. “I just felt like the coaching staff there was very welcoming and I felt very wanted there. It felt like the right fit for me.”

“Coach called me about him and I told him, obviously, about how great he was for us and shutdown guy and everything,” Greisen said. “Thomas met the guys and they really wanted him to come out and visit. When he went out there he was like, I’m going to check the box. … The coaches were great. I told him, ‘Trust your gut.’ He came back with his parents and said, ‘Wow. It was really nice.’”

Walder chose Dordt, an NAIA college in Sioux Center, Iowa.

He received a preferred walk-on offer from Michigan Tech for football and then was promised a roster spot on the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point baseball team.

Walder had a big decision to make: football or baseball.

“It was pretty tough, because my whole life I thought that I was more of a baseball guy, but this was the right fit for me and football kind of came on late,” Walder said. “Over the summer I was always touring colleges for baseball and then had a good season [for football] and coach Greisen did a very good job of talking to coaches for me. Then football just kind of climbed up and it just ended up feeling like the best fit for me, I went with it.”

Walder is confident he can step right into the college game and be a solid defensive back. The Dordt coaches will see if he is redshirted his freshman year or gets a chance to play depending on how fall pans out.

“It’s exciting,” Walder said. “Onto the next chapter in my life.”

Daanen reunites with his brother

During his freshman season, Daanen never thought he would have an opportunity to play college football.

However, he kept working, gained experience on the field and now has a college scholarship.

“It was a lot farther than I thought I would go, especially after freshman year when I didn’t really play much,” Daanen said. “I really turned it on second year with COVID year a lot of players out, I finally had my chance to prove myself.”

Daanen turned into a stable offensive lineman, being quarterback Duke Shovald’s protection on the blindside at left tackle.

By junior year, Daanen thought he could play college football. As a senior, he elevated his game enough to earn a Division I scholarship offer from the University of South Dakota.

Daanen ultimately chose Division II Michigan Tech, but it was tough to turn down a Division I offer.

“In the end I have to think where I’m going to be after college, because the chances of me actually going to the NFL, very slim,” Daanen said. “Football’s just something to get me through college, help pay for it and, of course, it’s going to be fun.”

Daanen will head up north to Houghton where he’ll pursue an electrical engineering degree and get the opportunity to play football on the same team as his brother, James, for the first time ever. James, who graduated from West De Pere in 2018, still has two years left of football eligibility.

“I’m going to be his punching dummy for the first year,” Daanen laughed. “All the freshmen have to play scout team.”

At 6-foot-6, 230 pounds, Daanen is undersized to play tackle at the college level. He has been instructed by coaches to be up to 250 pounds by August and 270 by the end of his freshman season.

Daanen said the majority of Michigan Tech football players redshirt their first year, so he is anticipating that move. However, because of a new NCAA rule, he’s allowed to play in three games without losing redshirt status.

Greisen believes Michigan Tech will be a great fit for Daanen.

“Number one, academically. Matt is a brilliant young kid and wants to be an engineer, his brother’s up there, he loves football,” Greisen said. “I think it’s just that perfect fit, and even though he got an offer from South Dakota to play [Division I], I think he always knew he wanted to go play with his brother. And Michigan Tech’s a great school, good coaching staff.” 

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