Aug. 27, 2010
Life as Defending Champions
By David Boyce
The questions this August are different, much more pleasant.
Instead of coming up with answers on why Northwest Missouri State's football team lost another Division II title game, the Bearcats now talk about defending a national title.
"It's good," senior linebacker Willie Horn said. "The last previous four seasons we were coming off not winning. Everybody had that question of if we could get back. Now, we are coming back trying to defend it so that target is even bigger for us.
"We are all excited that we have that target."
Talk of defending a national title is not the first or second thing to come out of the players' mouths. They only address it when asked.
Since it is preseason and a game has yet to be played, of course the players are going to be asked about life as defending national champions.
"It's nice," said senior quarterback Blake Bolles. "You definitely take pride in that. We are looking forward to this year and a chance to defend it.
"As a team we definitely move away from talking about last year and try to focus on this year. It's a new year. You start all over. Everybody has the same opportunities that we have to get back there."
Still, talk of the national championship is inevitable in Maryville during the spring and the summer.
National titles are very difficult to get. The Bearcats and their fans know this better than anybody. They made four straight trips to Florence, Ala., and lost heartbreakers each time.
The fifth time was the charm when Northwest beat playoff nemesis Grand Valley State 30-23. There were a few anxious moments in the fourth quarter before the Bearcats could finally hoist the championship trophy.
It's easy to go back to that Dec. 12 afternoon and reminisce.
"Some of the students and fans around town like to bring it up when they see you," Bolles said. "They are just really excited about the year. They really don't have anything to talk about but last year."
But when the football players are on the field practicing or in the film room looking at video, the only thing on their minds is the 2010 season.
The Bearcats lost five starters on defense, including defensive end Sean Paddock, the program's all-time sack leader and free safety Myles Burnsides, the 2008 national defensive player of the year.
Northwest returns all but one starter on offense, but the one gone, running back LaRon Council, was a standout, earning MIAA offensive player of the year last season.
But there is no reason to fret.
"I see a lot of competition," said senior strong safety Aldwin Foster-Rettig. "When guys mess up they keep their heads up. A lot of young guys are trying to get a spot, not letting seniors, just because they are seniors, take advantage of them. They are playing for that first spot."
One advantage the Bearcats have to counter the loss of some key players is a strong senior class. Twenty seniors are ready to put their stamp on the legacy of Northwest Missouri State football.
"Last year is last year," said senior defensive tackle Shayne Shade. "This is our legacy. We have never lost a conference game. If we lose, we fall short of last year's seniors. That's what it means to me."
As amazing as it is for Northwest to play in the last five Division II championship games, its conference winning streak almost matches that feat.
The Bearcats have won 37 straight conference games. They are just four shy of tying the MIAA record of 41 set by the Bearcats from 1997-2001.
No question, there are plenty of MIAA opponents eager to be the first one to knock off the defending champions and hand them their first conference loss since Oct. 29, 2005.
"It's a lot of pressure," said senior offensive lineman Brett Grozinger. "Everybody has your number and they want to beat you. It really hasn't changed much from last year.
"We play a lot of good teams, UNO, Washburn and Central Missouri. Those are all good teams. We have to fight every year to beat them. It's a compliment we've done that. But you have to stay humble. Another year is here."
And the Bearcats are ready. Many of the players have tasted the bitterness of losing a championship game and the sweetness of winning one.
It's easy to figure out what the Bearcats want. They are ready to climb the mountain again and breathe championship air.
"We finally got to experience it and it was amazing," junior wide receiver Jake Soy said. "We want to get that feeling again. I think we got the guys to do it again, but things got to go right."
David Boyce spent more than 20 years covering high school and small college athletics at the Kansas City Star newspaper in Missouri. He's covered six of Northwest Missouri State's seven national championship football games and recently served as a guest columnist for the MIAA.
Boyce was named KIAAA Sportswriter of the Year in 1994. He covered boxing at the Star from 1991-2004 including Tommy Morrison and worked both championship fights between Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis. His 1997 exclusive story on Morrison becoming HIV positive was named an Associated Press Sports Editor top 10 feature for papers serving more than 150,000.
Boyce was born in New York City and was raised in Kansas City, Kan. He graduated from the University of Kansas in 1988 with a degree in journalism. He is currently one of three official scorers for the Kansas City Royals and is a contributing writer for the Royals Gameday magazine.
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