Nov. 5, 2010
Bearcats, Mules Meet for MIAA Title
By David Boyce
The pressure should be immense.
Northwest Missouri State heads into its next to last game with the MIAA title at stake and a spot in the NCAA Division II playoffs lurking.
The Bearcats can solidify both with a victory. But they will have to come up with the triumph on the road in what perhaps is the most important regular-season game in the history of Walton Stadium.
Central Missouri has had good teams over the last decade. Never have the Mules been in position to win the MIAA with a perfect conference mark.
Northwest, 7-1 overall and 7-0 in the MIAA, takes its 44-game conference winning streak into Warrensburg against a Central Missouri team that is 9-1 overall and 8-0 in the MIAA.
A crowd between 10,000 and 15,000 are expected to flow into Walton Stadium for the kickoff at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. In addition, the weather is supposed to be nice with temperatures soaring into the 60s.
Regional rankings are also on the line. Central Missouri is ranked second in the South Central and Northwest is fourth. The top two teams in the region get a first-round bye in the playoffs.
It's the perfect, big-game setting.
But even with so much riding on the game, the Bearcats are handling it like any other game. You see, they have been through this before. They know how to handle a big game. They crave it.
"I enjoy being in pressure games," senior defensive back Justin Welch said. "It's like a bigger challenge for me. I like to go out there and compete. There is nothing better than to compete against another undefeated team for the conference championship.
"It is going to be a hard test for us, but I think we've played in enough of these games that we can come out with a victory. UCM hasn't been in as many games. I'm not trying to be rude, I just think our experience in big games will help us out."
Coach Mel Tjeerdsma recruits players who want to play in these types of games.
When the season starts, the Bearcats aren't talking about reaching the NCAA Division II championship game. The focus is on the MIAA title. Tjeerdsma said that's the No. 1 goal.
"This is why kids come here," he said. "We get a lot of kids who want to play for a conference championship. So what more can you ask for than the second-to-last game of the year and having a chance to achieve your No. 1 goal. I'm excited for our kids and for our staff. This is why we do this."
The game is so big that talk about the coaching match-up has taken a back seat. Central Missouri's first-year coach Jim Svoboda was the offensive coordinator for Northwest when the Bearcats won back-to-back national titles in 1998 and '99.
However, none of the current players know Svoboda.
"I heard he and (defensive coordinator) Coach (Scott) Bostwick used to go at it pretty good." Welch said.
Bostwick would like nothing better than to have bragging rights that his defense slowed down Svoboda's offense.
But really, Tjeerdsma said, this game is all about the players.
"Some of them know Lambo (former Bearcat quarterback Josh Lamberson), obviously," Tjeerdsma said of Central Missouri's wide receivers coach. "But none of them know Jim. It's not a big deal to them. That's the way it should be. This is about the conference championship and not about us against them. That's why it is nice.
"It was a little different the first couple of years when we played Bart Tatum (Missouri Southern head coach) because a lot of those kids had Bart as a coach. This is a different situation."
Tjeerdsma has strong feelings for Svoboda as well as Tatum. He thinks of them as sons.
"But I sure don't want to lose to them and I don't think any of our staff want to either," Tjeerdsma said.
That means the Bearcats better be ready. Central Missouri is good. The Mules rank first in the conference in scoring offense, averaging 41.6 points per game. Northwest is a close second at 41.0.
"I think they are more basic than they have been," Welch said. "They do a lot of three stepping. They have some pretty good receivers and a new one who is similar to Jake Soy. I think right now they are pretty basic on offense but they are effective in how they do things."
The difference is defense. Northwest ranks first in the MIAA in scoring defense, allowing 20.6 points per game. Central Missouri is fifth at 26.0.
"Obviously their schemes have changed a little bit," Tjeerdsma said. "Otherwise I don't think we would prepare for them any differently than anybody else. They have talented players. They are doing a great job of what they are doing offensively and defensively. We have to get focused and get ready.
"I told everybody it is exciting. You are happy with what they have done."
It's the best way to decide a title. The two best teams face each other late in the season. For the Mules, it is their last regular-season game. Northwest has one more. The Bearcats face Pittsburg State at Arrowhead next week.
"I think it is going to be a crazy atmosphere with a lot of fans from both sides," Welch said. "It is going to be close to a playoff atmosphere. There is nothing better than playing in this type of game right before the playoffs."
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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