Kevin Haskin: Northwest Missouri’s D-II dynasty both strengthens, demoralizes MIAA

Bearcats remain conference football favorite despite transition with new coach

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Under most circumstances, rivals project a glimmer of hope when a reigning league champion undergoes a coaching change.

 

Northwest Missouri State, however, is fully capable of sacking, stripping and steamrolling any glimmer into gridiron putty.

“You just expect them to keep on rolling,’’ Pittsburg State coach Tim Beck said this week at MIAA football media day. “They’ve kind of separated themselves from the rest of the country right now.’’

Back-to-back Division II championships prompted Adam Dorrel to leave Northwest and take over an FCS program, Abilene Christian. Dorrel was promoted at Northwest after longtime coach Mel Tjeerdsma took over as athletic director, but only after another assistant, Scott Bostwick, died of a heart attack after he was originally tabbed as head coach.

That was prior to the 2011 season. Now, six years later, the Bearcats are looking to maintain their dynasty from within. Defensive coordinator Rich Wright will take over a club that lost 13 starters but was again picked to win the MIAA and will bid for a seventh national title since 1998.

“A lot of the pieces we have moving forward are guys who had to stand on the sideline,’’ cautioned Wright, noting that last year’s outgoing seniors went 55-2 and were part of three national championships.

Still, Wright is aware of what can be achieved on the Northwest chess board.

“We just try to refit the pieces and make the whole better than the parts,’’ he said.

Emporia State coach Garin Higgins downplayed the coaching transition at Northwest for two reasons.

First, players make plays. Second, assistants at Northwest, including Wright in his former position, are quite familiar with running what is America’s best Division II football system.

“They know how things are done,’’ Higgins said. “Those assistant coaches that are there, they know how things work because they’ve been there.’’

Emporia State lost 41-14 and 44-13 to Northwest to begin and end last season. In between, the Hornets won a school-record 11 straight games. The second matchup was in the Division II playoffs. Despite the outcome, many thought ESU was the second best team in the country.

That reflects the power the MIAA possesses in football.

And, the powerhouse that is Northwest Missouri State.

Yet, if you look hard enough, that glimmer exists. At least that’s what rivals tell themselves, especially when the Bearcats must replace some immovable playmakers on defense.

“We called them the triangle of death — their two D-ends and their Mike linebacker,’’ Higgins said. “That’s pretty harsh, but that’s the way it was. They made a call sheet look as small as a credit card.’’

New coach or not, Northwest’s ability to reload is certainly proven. In part because Tjeerdsma, the coach who launched the Bearcats’ string of national titles, is still around and the system he installed continues to flourish.

The league the Bearcats play in continues to improve, too, in spite of their 26-game win streak in MIAA play.

Emporia State, led by returning quarterback Braxton Marstall, even drew two first-place votes in the preseason coaches poll.

Not that polling makes the challenge faced by MIAA squads any easier.

“We play them early, which is nice,’’ WU coach Craig Schurig said of the Ichabods’ home opener against the Bearcats. “Maybe they’ll have a little lack of communication in certain spots.

“You hope there’s a little chink in the armor you can dig at a little bit, but they’re outstanding. In this conference, every team has had to get better to compete with them. It kind of leads people to catch up.’’

While the Ichabods have played the Bearcats close, Schurig is just 1-15 in the series as he begins his 16th season. A year ago, Washburn trailed 17-7 at halftime in Maryville, but fell 41-7.

“I’m glad they’re in our conference and we have to beat the best to be the best,’’ said WU senior linebacker Austin Tillman. “Taking it to them at home can just open the book for a whole new season at Washburn.’’

Same is true anywhere else. Not just in the MIAA, but all of Division II.

Contact Kevin Haskin at kevin.haskin@cjonline.com or @KevinHaskin on Twitter.

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