By TOMMY REZAC
St. Joseph Post
It has been 634 days since the winningest college football program of the last decade in Division II has taken the field.
Northwest Missouri State wrapped up the 2019 season on December 7 with a 25-3 loss to Ferris State in the NCAA DII national quarterfinals.
What followed in 2020 was a year of very limited practice. No games. No fans. No chance for the Bearcats to prove what they could have been.
"It's been a long, long offseason anticipating a game," senior quarterback and all-MIAA honoree Braden Wright said. "Like, we got one in the spring. Kind of a practice, scrimmage setup. You know, it was fun to get out there, but that's not the same as an actual football game obviously. So, it's exciting to finally get to strap it on against somebody else."
Northwest did hold a joint practice with Sioux Falls on April 10 in Maryville, but just like nearly every other DII team, did not play a game in 2020.
The Bearcats tried to schedule games with Washburn and Central Missouri in November, but both of those were canceled.
For head coach Rich Wright, who enters his fourth season, this coming year truly is a great unknown. Even when his team is picked by the league's coaches and media to win the MIAA and is preseason ranked No. 4 in the country.
"As the head football coach at Northwest Missouri State, don't know what's going to happen with this football season," Wright said. "So, how anybody picked us (first in the MIAA), I mean, I guess it's a popularity contest, because it sure isn't based on anything anybody's done in the last 365 days."
Northwest opens its season with a trip to Hays, KS on Thursday and a showdown with the Fort Hays State Tigers - a team that starts the season just outside the AFCA Top 25 and is picked to finish third in the conference.
Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. For Braden Wright, this season opener carries a little more excitement than others.
"Just having the opportunity to go out and battle right out of the gate and to see what we're made of right way," he said, "I'm excited for the opportunity. Obviously, I have a lot of respect for (Fort Hays State) as a team and as a program."
While Wright enters his third year as the starting quarterback, Northwest brings back 14, fifth-year seniors. Every player in an NCAA fall and winter sport were granted an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic.
While some elected to forego that extra year, linebacker and captain Jackson Barnes is thrilled to come back for another season and help the team achieve its high aspirations.
"This class has just worked too hard for this," Barnes said. "You know, I'm not ready to give it up and the rest of us weren't either. We're just excited to come back and compete."
Now that he has come back, Barnes and those around him intend to make this season one to remember.
"We don't want to end (the season) losing in the playoffs," he said. "We want to play for it all and that's just the standard we have and it means a lot to us to be able to come back and compete for that."
Northwest has won four national titles since 2009 - the last one coming in 2016 under coach Adam Dorrel.
For coach Wright, the talk doesn't focus a ton on national championships.
"We talk about how there's a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things and there is no gray area," he said. "So, if we go into it with that mentality, and we understand the things it takes to be successful, then the process takes care of itself."
There's some unknowns for Northwest going into this season. Two new running backs on the depth chart. A secondary peppered with transfers and unproven talent. Three of the top five receivers from 2019 gone.
The good news for the Bearcats - the start of the 2021 season is a bit of an unknown for everybody. Especially after no season last year.
"Guys graduated," coach Wright said. "They brought in other guys. People transferred out. Until we get to see what everybody has, it's truly a crap shoot."
You can follow Tommy on Twitter @TommyKFEQ and St. Joseph Post @StJosephPost.