St. Mary’s football player John Nordberg had high hopes heading into his final high school season.

The tight end-safety helped the Saints capture the Class AA state championship in 2016, and was expected to play a larger role in 2017.

However, there was a time when Nordberg believed his senior season would end prematurely. During the Saints’ fourth regular season game, Nordberg suffered an LCL tear in his left knee, an injury that would force him to miss the next five contests. Fortunately, he was able to recover, returning to the field last Saturday for St. Mary’s Class AA semifinal game against Devils Lake.

Nordberg said being out of action for more than a month was excruciating.

“It was really hard standing on the sidelines watching my team play without me. All I wanted to do was get healthy and play again,” said the 6-foot-3, 205-pound Nordberg. “When I got hurt, I was afraid that my season would be over, but it turned out to be not that serious. All I needed was some time off for my knee to heal on its own, and some rehab. I got to play again on Saturday and it felt great to be able to do that. Now I get to end my high school career in the state championship game. That’s what every senior wants.”

Nordberg made an immediate impact in his return last Saturday, catching four passes for 57 yards in the Saints’ 30-0 victory over the Firebirds. He also contributed to a defense that recorded its fifth shutout of the season.

St. Mary’s coach Dan Smrekar said the Saints (8-2) are a much better team with Nordberg on the field.

“John adds so much to our team. He’s definitely an impact type of player,” said Smrekar, whose team will face No. 1-ranked and unbeaten Fargo Shanley in the Class AA state championship game Friday afternoon at the Fargodome. “He’s a big target in our passing game and an excellent blocker. Defensively, he’s terrific in pass coverage and a big help stopping the run. We missed him when he was out, but we’re excited to have him back for the most important games of the year.”

Nordberg had a solid season in 2016, catching 12 passes for 304 yards on offense, and recording 40-plus tackles and intercepting six enemy passes on defense. This season he showed up the first day of practice bigger and stronger.

“Last year John was about 185 pounds. This year he came in at 205 and in great shape,” Smrekar said. “He did a great job during the offseason getting himself ready. It’s always a plus when a good athlete adds some size and strength.”

Nordberg can feel the difference.

“Last year my blocking was more about technique. Now I’m able to overpower people if I have to,” he said. “I’m also better at tackling and defending against the run. I wanted to contribute more this year and all of the work I put in is paying off. A lot of the credit goes to our strength and conditioning coach Tanner Harris. He really pushed me hard.”

St. Mary’s lost two of the five games Nordberg missed. One was against Shanley on Sept. 29. In that contest, the Deacons opened up a 17-7 lead and held on for a 17-14 victory. St. Mary’s quarterback Cole Gendreau didn’t play in the second half because of an injury.

Nordberg said the Saints are excited about the rematch.

“That’s what we were all hoping for. We felt we didn’t play our best game that night and we wanted another chance at them,” he said. “For me it was the toughest game to watch, for sure … I really wanted to be out there. It was tough to lose that game, but winning on Friday would more than make up for it.”

Smrekar said the regular-season meeting between the two teams went as advertised.

“It was expected to be a tough, physical, close game and it definitely was,” he said. “We’re expecting the same kind of game on Friday. We didn’t have our starting quarterback in the second half and that hurt, but we still had a chance to win it in the end. I thought we played well against their offense, which has some explosive players. We’re going to need a big effort from our defense, and if our offense can control the ball and the clock, that would be huge.”

Quarterback Cade Busek leads the Shanley offense with 1,047 yards passing (64-for-116) and 595 rushing. He has thrown 13 touchdown passes and has yet to be intercepted. Busek gained 158 total yards against St. Mary’s in the regular-season meeting.

The Deacons have five players with at least 10 receptions – Haley Bucholz 21 (269), Cam Saville 18 (393), Jake Kava 17 (278), Jacob McKeever 14 (206) and Talon Hofer 10 (174).

The Saints are more balanced offensively then they were in September. Jonah Krebs rushed for 152 yards last Saturday and now has 752 for the season. Joey Heinert, Gendreau and Ben Schmidt have 431, 385 and 209, respectively.

Gendreau has completed 103 of 165 passes for 1,451 yards and 16 touchdowns. Luke Kambeitz has 46 catches for 685 yards.

“We’re feeling good about our offense. We’re running the ball much better than we did, and our passing game has been good all year,” Nordberg said. “We’re in better shape now than we were in September, but so is Shanley. I know both teams are going to bring it on Friday.”

Michael Weber is a Bismarck Tribune sportswriter