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Sanbornton’s Van Tassel will jump from football field to basic training

Dakota Van Tassel of Winnisquam HIgh catches a pass from a teammate during the final practice before the Shrine Bowl at Dartmouth College's Memorial Stadium in Hanover, N.H. Friday, August 1, 2014.
(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Dakota Van Tassel of Winnisquam HIgh catches a pass from a teammate during the final practice before the Shrine Bowl at Dartmouth College's Memorial Stadium in Hanover, N.H. Friday, August 1, 2014. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Dakota Van Tassel had several options to choose from. College was one. Playing football in college was another.

There was a third choice, however, one that the former Winnisquam lineman and wrestler had had in mind for years. Van Tassel liked the Army National Guard. He liked what it stood for, what it was all about. And the further he got in high school, the more convinced he felt that it was the right destination.

“It really means a lot in the bigger picture,” Van Tassel said. “It’s not just (about) yourself, so that’s what I decided to go with.”

When the Shrine Maple Sugar Bowl ends tonight, nearly all of the 36 players on the New Hampshire roster will be headed to schools throughout the region and country, some going on to continue their football careers. The 6-foot-3 Van Tassel, however, will wait a little over two weeks before packing up and heading to Fort Sill in Oklahoma, on his way to start basic training

as a new member of the New Hampshire Army National Guard.

It wasn’t an easy decision, Van Tassel acknowledged. But he knows it was the correct one.

“I’m just excited to become part of the best fighting force in the world, and I know I’m just going to go there and give it my all and they’re going to train me,” the Sanbornton resident said. “They know what they’re doing. … I know I’m in good hands.”

It was hardly an impulsive decision. Van Tassel had had the Guard on his radar for a while (“Ever since I can remember,” he said), and by the time his senior year at Winnisquam rolled around, he was ready to follow through. He contacted Staff Sgt. Jacob Poole, a local recruiter, and began discussing what he needed to make his goal a reality. Backed throughout by his family, he discussed the different jobs there were, took a test to see which ones suited him and enlisted during wrestling season, formally putting himself in the system with a report date for basic training to make it official.

Still, there were obstacles. One was coming to grips with the schools he’d be passing up. He liked Plymouth State, he had talked to scouts at Springfield and he was being recruited by Norwich University. The thought of continuing his football career was tempting, but Van Tassel wasn’t about to be swayed.

“I was definitely set,” he said. “Sometimes I think about it and wonder what it would have been like to play at the college level, but I was pretty set in my decision.”

The other hurdle takes place today. When discussing basic training dates with his recruiter, Van Tassel made it clear there wasn’t a chance he was missing the Shrine Bowl, due both to the game’s prestige and the lure of a final time to suit up.

“I had been training really hard and had high ambitions of making the Shrine Bowl,” he said. “I told them that was my first priority, was making this game, because it meant a lot to me and also my football community.

“It’s great. It’s great to get one last football experience in with a bunch of great guys.”

His Shrine experience has been a busy one. Van Tassel is in the mix on both the offensive and defensive sides of the ball and is learning a new position, getting reps at outside linebacker. His progression has impressed Head Coach David Jackson, who said Van Tassel “will hit anybody that moves,” and the coach said he can see how the Guard would be a good fit.

“Yeah, it’s intense. He’s an intense guy,” he said. “He’s all about protecting everybody, caring for everybody.”

Van Tassel has an idea of what’s to come in Oklahoma and beyond. The experience will begin with 10 weeks of basic training, and then move on to seven weeks of advanced training in which he’ll be trained as a forward observer, tasked with scouting, calling in strikes and relaying information on targets in the field.

“It’s going to be really high speed to start with,” he said.

After that, Van Tassel said he’ll have an opportunity to go full-time, which could see him through the next few years. It’s a commitment and a change from what he’s been doing, but Van Tassel is excited for the challenge.

It certainly helps when you’ve been gearing up for it for years.

“I expected every bit that I’ve had so far and every bit that’s to come,” he said. “I’ve been nothing but encouraged from my family and my friends, so they’ve all told me I’m going to do fine every step of the way.”

(Drew Bonifant can be reached at abonifant@cmonitor.com or 369-3340 or on Twittter @dbonifant.)

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