(Editor’s note: This story is part of The Star’s annual football preview, which will appear in three special sections in the Sunday, Aug. 28 print edition and also on KansasCity.com and The Star’s Red Zone Extra app.)
Football coaches generally have a curfew about celebrating victories — the celebrations cease at midnight.
Northwest Missouri State went straight into its holiday break after dispatching Shepherd (W.Va.) University 34-7 last December to wrap up the fifth NCAA Division II football championship and third perfect season in school history.
The Bearcats’ party started with an epic bus ride from Kansas City, Kan., back to Maryville, Mo., and didn’t end until the new semester started.
“I just remember a lot of guys laughing, talking about different parts of the game and the season, making sure we celebrated the little things,” senior safety Kevin Berg, a Rockhurst grad, said. “It was a great time.”
But traditions like the one Northwest Missouri has built don’t grow by celebrating past glories. The Bearcats have been focusing on how to add another trophy to the case since they put the latest one in there. The Division II championship game will once again be in Kansas City, Kan., on Dec. 17 at Children’s Mercy Park.
“We talked to our team, the big thing I was trying to get across was, we’re moving on,” Northwest Missouri coach Adam Dorrel said. “We’re not going to talk about last year, and I feel like we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”
The Bearcats return seven starters on defense, and eight on offense. Senior Kyle Zimmerman, a Blue Valley grad, will be taking over at quarterback for Brady Bolles. Zimmerman appeared in 10 games in each of the last two seasons, and completed all but two of his 20 pass attempts last year.
“We’ve got a good corps coming back, and the O-line, their camaraderie and the work they’ve put in building relationships, it didn’t go unnoticed to me,” Zimmerman said. “And it’s something I feel like is going to help our team, them being physical and be a collective unit during the season.”
The defense proved to be one of the best in the country last year, allowing just 12.7 points and 224 yards per game.
“I feel like we have a good chance to be good on defense again,” Dorrel said. “We have three of our four starting defensive linemen coming back.”
Berg finished last season with 54 tackles and a team-high eight interceptions.
“In the beginning of the season, coach Dorrel stated we were a 7-4 team on paper. We wanted to outperform that, and each week was a challenge and trying to improve,” Berg said. “There are a lot of great defenses that came through here. We want to put our name in those record books. We realize that’s a long ways away. We’ve got a lot of improvement to do: guys getting back to assignments, getting back to fundamentals.”
Northwest Missouri has won 27 Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association titles. The Bearcats are used to being the hunted, and last year’s national title won’t change that.
“Human nature has a tendency to be a little bit complacent, but just with the league being so good, we can’t afford that,” Dorrel said. “We’ve had good success, sustained success. I couldn’t say I think (the target) is any bigger.”
Baker favored to repeat in Heart
The Baker football team accomplished just about everything it wanted to last season, except landing an elusive national championship. The Wildcats’ run ended at 11-2 at the hands of Southern Oregon.
“They were defending national champs. They played like it,” Baker coach Mike Grossner said. “I think mentally we know we belong in that company, but just to grind through the year.”
Baker starts the season ranked No. 5 in the NAIA, and as favorites to repeat in the Heart of America Athletic Conference Southern Division.
The Wildcats return nine starters on defense, and seven on offense, and will have to replace four starters on the offensive line.
Baker won’t ease into the season. It opens at home with No. 6 Grand View University, which it beat on the road last year.
Grossner expects big things this season, and has no problem dreaming big.
“When I talk to our guys, I don’t shy away from it,” Grossner said. “We talk national championship, but the first one we need is the Heart South. That gets you in postseason guaranteed, and then we’ll make a run at it. If all goes well, I expect us to make a playoff run, and ultimately we want to win.”
Todd Engle: @tengle68