KANSAS CITY, Mo. — “It is a national championship or bust.”
Northwest Missouri State offensive lineman Ryan Spelhaug didn’t mince words when discussing what the Bearcat football team’s goals were while representing the Bearcats at MIAA Media Day Wednesday in Kansas City.
The Bearcats were named the favorites to win the conference in the media preseason poll. Fort Hays State, who shared the conference championship with Northwest last season after the Tigers won the league outright the year prior, was picked to win in the coaches’ poll.
The reason for the excitement is obvious for Northwest with plenty of talent returning on each side of the ball.
“We have high expectations here,” junior linebacker Andy Hessler said. “That is why we sign here. We want to win the national championship every year.”
The offense is headlined by the return of sophomore quarterback Braden Wright. Braden’s presence means that Rich Wright will have a returning starter at quarterback for his first time in his three-year stint as head coach.
“To have that returner, to have that guy who has experience, has playoff experience, has played in big games and then his level of cohesion with the rest of our football team,” Rich Wright said. “That obviously wasn’t where it is today and that is just a time thing. You have to develop relationships with your teammates and you have understand what their strengths and weaknesses are. That is only going help us moving forward.”
Braden is not the only playmaker on to offensive side. Tight end Marqus Andrews had a breakout season last year with 222 receiving yards and four touchdowns and with the loss of wide receiver Shawn Bane Jr., and running back Josh Caldwell — both in NFL camps, Andrews is ready to step up.
“As a tight end and a captain, I kind of lead those running back and wide receiver guys,” Andrews said. “That is kind of my duty, I feel like.”
Despite the loss of Caldwell, Northwest has plenty of depth at running back with Isaiah Strayhorn back after an All-MIAA season and Kent State transfer Justin Rankin joining the mix.
“With Justin coming in, that is a two-headed dragon right there,” Spelhaug said.
The offensive line knows that running the ball more consistently is going to be a big key this year and they are ready to embrace that challenge.
“We love to run the football,” Spelhaug said. “We love to get in the trenches and drive people.”
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bearcats lose plenty of talent with Austen Eskew, Ben Althoff, Nick Hess, Jack Richards and Anthony Lane among others. The return of players like Hessler and Jacob Gassman — both named captains — off injuries last season should help make up for the losses.
“Losing Jack Richards last year, he was integral to us, and it is good to have a guy who has experience like Jake does,” Rich Wright said. “He had an unfortunate injury, but he has been working his tail off. He looks great and he is ready to go.”
Hessler is ready assume more of a leadership role with the linebackers after playing alongside Hess and Althoff before his injury last season.
“They have taught me the ways and now it is my turn to teach the young guys so that when I am gone, they are doing the same thing,” Hessler said.
“In the past we’ve always had that strong defense and Coach Wright will obviously not allow for anything less than a great defense. We take that to heart.”
Now with Media Day behind them, Coach Wright is ready to change his attire and get on the practice field to start preparing for the season-opening trip to Missouri Western on Thursday, September 5.
“I’m always ready to turn the tie in for a whistle,” Wright said. “It is that time and I’m ready to kick it off.”