Two unexpected teams at the top of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association last season are poised to take the next step — maintaining excellence in one of the nation’s top Division II football conferences.
Missouri Western is the defending champion after capturing the first outright MIAA title in its history.
Emporia State finished second, percentage points ahead of Northwest Missouri State, and the Hornets’ 10-2 record marked only the second time Emporia’s victory total reached double figures.
Now coaches Jerry Partridge of Western and Garin Higgins of Emporia are hearing the same request from their fans.
“Winning the conference championship was a huge deal,” Partridge said Monday at MIAA Media Day at the Downtown Marriott. “Now, you think, ‘How are we going to match the 12 wins from last year?’ But the work ethic and the day to day process have been equal to what it’s always been.”
The casts are new, but expectations track on an upward trajectory after the Griffons went 2-1 in the NCAA Division II playoffs, reaching the national quarterfinals. And at Emporia, after the Hornets won the Kanza Bowl.
“But expectations are OK because that means you had had success last year,” Higgins said. “You want your program to be in that situation.”
Outside views on the programs differ. In the preseason polls that were released Monday, the Griffons deadlocked with rival Northwest Missouri in the coaches poll, and finished a whisker behind the Bearcats in the media poll.
Emporia State was selected in the same position as it entered last season, seventh.
“It’s a tough league, we’ll have a new quarterback, I understand,” Higgins said.
Tyler Eckenrode, who averaged 312 passing yards per game and ranked among the NCAA leaders in total offense, has moved on, as has All-America tight end Adam Schiltz. But back is wide receiver Ray Ray Davis, who caught eight touchdown passes, rushed for two and threw for one.
A primary reason for optimism at Western is the return of quarterback Travis Partridge, the coaches’ son who in a breakout 2012 season threw for 30 touchdowns and rushed for 18 more.
Running back Michael Hill, who rushed for 2,168 yards and 7.0 yards per attempt, is gone, and so is the Griffons’ entire starting offensive line.
But tight end Reggie Jordan, who caught 11 touchdown passes, returns as a primary target.
“There will be times when Travis’ backyard ability will take over,” Jerry Partridge said. “We as an offensive play-calling group have to be smart. We need to let him be a great leader.”
The MIAA traditional powers figure to be strong again. Northwest Missouri and Pittsburg State, which ranked third in the polls, each collected multiple first-place votes. The programs had combined to win or share 22 of the previous 24 MIAA championships. Washburn, Central Missouri and Lindenwood are the consensus fourth through sixth picks. Then Emporia at seventh, and bidding for more.
“We always wanted to get to that point where we had good teams, and last year we got there,” Higgins said. “Now, we go into this season believing we can be good. Players aren’t saying that they were content to be 10-2 last year. They’re very hungry to be as good or better this year.”