Highlands graduates leading RMU into 'Thunderdome'

| Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012, 12:16 a.m.

Welcome to “Thunderdome.”

Highlands graduates Nate Hargraves and Jeff Sinclair will kick off their senior seasons at Robert Morris University by playing in one of the most hostile environments in the Division I Football Championship Subdivision.

The hulking lineman Hargraves, the dual-threat quarterback Sinclair and their teammates will try to shock defending national champion North Dakota State — and most of the country — when they meet at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Fargodome.

The stadium, nicknamed the Thunderdome because of distracting, nerve-rattling noise generated by fans, seats more than 19,000.

North Dakota State is ranked No. 1 in the FCS coaches' poll, while Robert Morris was picked sixth in the Northeast Conference coaches' poll. The stage is set for the Colonials to make the kind of noise that would reverberate across the country. The season-opening game will be broadcast on ESPN3.

“They just won a national championship, so it will be a real test,” Sinclair said. “We'll see how much fight we have.”

Hargraves looks forward to seeing how Robert Morris matches up against the Bison – the current measuring stick for the national title.

“I more excited than I can say,” Hargraves said. “It's probably one of the best things that can happen to us. Opening the season with the reigning champs is a good thing.”

Sinclair and Hargraves are eager to help Robert Morris (2-9, 2-6) rebound from a disappointing 2011 campaign.

The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Sinclair enters his fourth season as the starting quarterback and owns impressive career numbers. In school history, he ranks fifth in passing yards (4,121) and touchdowns passes (42) and could climb at least a few spots in each category. He's also rushed for 230 yards and 14 touchdowns in 27 starts.

Sinclair claimed All-NEC First Team honors and guided Robert Morris to the FCS playoffs two years ago, and he hopes to repeat those accomplishments this year. He said he doesn't dwell on the record books.

“Honestly, I don't pay attention to all that stuff,” Sinclair said. “All I want to do is win games. We have a great senior class this year. We can't accept 2-9. Everybody has the right mindset.”

Hargraves, a 6-foot-4, 280-pound right tackle, earned a starting role last season. He sees improvement in all facets of the game for Robert Morris, which returns seven starters on offense and eight on defense.

Hargraves and Sinclair have been teammates for eight years.

“We were best friends in high school, and we're best friends now,” Sinclair said. “We've been playing together for so long, so I know I can trust him. It feels really good to have him on my side.”

Hargraves also appreciates his friend's skills.

“He's a great athlete,” Hargraves said. ‘He's one of the best athletes I've ever come in contact with on a football field. I can tell when he's going to run. The defensive end will let up, and I know I have to stay on the block. It's nothing different from high school. It's a great feeling knowing there's a guy back there that can make plays.”

Sinclair is familiar with the Fargodome. In 2010, he started for Robert Morris in a 43-17 loss to North Dakota State in the first round of the FCS playoffs. The noise level in the Fargodome has been measured at 100 decibels, which is like standing about 20 feet from a rushing express train.

“First game after their banner year, they'll probably have a lot of students there,” Sinclair said. “It was really loud the last time we were there. This time, it should be even louder.”

Paul Kogut is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at pkogut@tribweb.com or 724-224-2696.

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