There’s something to be said about continuity, and Northwest Missouri State football coach Rich Wright knows all about the importance of continuity in success.
But Wright also knows that in 2017, his first season as head coach of the Bearcats, he fell short of that continuity.
“A lot of the offseason was spent looking at ourselves, how we’re doing things and how we’re going to do them better moving forward,” Wright said on Tuesday at MIAA football media day.
Taking over for Adam Dorell at the start of the 2017 season, stepping up from his previous position as defensive coordinator and assistant head coach, Wright had a lot to live up to.
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The Bearcats had won three of the last four NCAA Division II championships, including the previous two, with 15-0 records. Additionally, Northwest had won the conference championship each of those four years.
But in Wright’s first season, the Bearcats finished 9-2 and came in second in the MIAA behind surprise winners Fort Hays State. In lieu with their subpar regular season by the Bearcats’ recent standards, they also came nowhere near a national championship.
But Wright is looking to use that disappointment, as well as the more experienced coaching staff at his disposal, to bounce back from a disappointing year. Northwest was voted to win the MIAA, edging second-place Hays, by media and coaches.
“I think our kids are really committed to getting ourselves back in the mix,” Wright said. “There’s been a sense of urgency on campus, and we had one of the best spring practices that I can remember, followed up by a summer where we had 95 kids on campus every single day.”
The odds could be back in the Bearcats’ favor, too. Offensive line coach Mike Cunningham is also heading into his second season with the Bearcats, and will get the chance to work with an already talented offense that will be bolstered at running back.
Northwest will see three backs enter the fold, including Josh Caldwell, who led the MIAA in rushing yards in 2016 and was second in the conference in 2017 before succumbing to a shoulder injury. Caldwell is transferring from Missouri Western.
The one shake-up that the Bearcats will feel is on the defensive line, with the majority of the 14 starters that have left the university in the past year coming from the defense. Despite that, the team is still returning linebacker Ben Althoff, who led the team in tackles (83) last season, and defensive end Austin Eskew, who led the team in tackles for loss (10) last season.
“We have a lot of guys competing for spots and especially when the coaches aren’t around, we have guys just going at each other, just trying to prove they’re the guy for that spot,” said offensive lineman Zach Flott. “So we’ve had really high intensity all summer.”
Wright will be hoping that his Bearcats will be able to rebound from last year, using the continuity from both his and Cunningham’s second years in their respective positions, as well as the bolstered offense and reinvigorated defense.
“Just having it here under our belt, understanding the expectations, understanding kind of how things work,” Wright said, “it just makes everything a little bit easier.
Preseason MIAA football polls
First-place votes in parentheses
- 1. Northwest Missouri (4): 103
- 2. Fort Hays State (5): 102
- 3. Central Missouri (2): 96
- 4. Pittsburg State: 81
- 5. (tie) Central Oklahoma: 67
- 5. (tie) Emporia State: 67
- 7. Washburn: 63
- 8. Lindenwood: 46
- 9. Missouri Western: 40
- 10. Nebraska-Kearney: 30
- 11. Northeastern State: 19
- 12. Missouri Southern: 12
- 1. Northwest Missouri (14): 382
- 2. Fort Hays State (13): 375
- 3. Central Missouri (6): 349
- 4. Pittsburg State (1): 311
- 5. Emporia State: 243
- 6. Central Oklahoma: 229
- 7. Washburn: 223
- 8. Missouri Western: 171
- 9. Lindenwood: 160
- 10. Nebraska-Kearney: 98
- 11. Northeastern State: 66
- 12. Missouri Southern: 45