FLORENCE, Ala. – As hullabaloos go in Hickory, N.C., this was huge.
Hundreds of Lenoir-Rhyne faithful turned out Wednesday morning as the Bears left campus to head south and face Northwest Missouri State for the Division II football championship. The team got a police escort out of town, and television stations from as far away as Charlotte and Asheville were on hand to capture it all for posterity.Alums who had followed the program through its lean years – its really, really lean years – were there, too. Never before had the Bears been to the DII title game, and this was for them. This was for everybody in the area who had believed for all those years.
“Any time you have that kind of support, it’s really something special,” head coach Mike Houston said. “We play at home, and they are very boisterous. It is a great, great atmosphere that we play in front of. That enthusiasm and support that we have in Hickory from our alums and the city is really special for a small school.”
What would it mean to Houston to carry the national championship trophy back to the community? That’s an easy one.
The school’s football team won an NAIA championship back in 1960, and there have been several South Atlantic Conference crowns. Just getting here to Florence to play Northwest Missouri State won’t be enough.
“It would be fulfillment of the dreams of the alums that played back in the early sixties, that won a national championship in NAIA back then, that have seen the program drop to an 0-10 season and 15 years of non-winning,” Houston said. “To see that return to a national championship, that would be a really special ending to the season.”
The campus of Northwest Missouri State is a thousand miles west of Hickory in Maryville, near the borders of Iowa, Nebraska and Kansas. With a population of not quite 12,000, Maryville is a little more than a quarter of the size of Lenoir-Rhyne’s hometown. That’s not to say, however, that the town’s heart for its local college football team is any smaller than Hickory.
Bearcat head coach Adam Dorrel should know. His maternal great-grandfather, Ross Alexander Scott, played fullback for the school’s very first football team more than a hundred years ago. His maternal grandfather and a great uncle also played there. Dorrel grew up in Maryville and starred at the local high school before signing on as an offensive lineman for the Bearcats.
He wound up as a three-year team captain, and won All-American and All-MIAA conference honors. Dorrel returned to the school as an assistant coach in 2004, moved up to offensive coordinator in 2007 and was moved to the top post in 2011 after the untimely passing of Scott Bostwick.
Bostwick was named the Bearcats’ head coach following the 2010 season but died of a heart attack on June 5, 2011.
“A lot of bigger universities or universities that are set in bigger towns, sometimes, there’s not a lot of continuity,” Dorrel said. “Our university is just woven into the fabric of this community. They go hand-in-hand.
“Anything that we do as a university, we include the city of Maryville and vice versa. It’s a great partnership that really adds to the experience of not only student-athletes but students in general. There are some really good people in Maryville, Mo., and they love this university and they love these kids.”
If the school is an important part of Maryville, and it most certainly is, the same can be said of the school and Dorrel’s own family. Come Saturday here in Alabama, Dorrel estimates that he’ll have anywhere from 20 to 25 members of his family in the stands at Braly Municipal Stadium. That’s nothing out of the ordinary, really. Most have been to every game this year.
“It’s really important to our family,” Dorrel said. “It’s an opportunity for our family to come together every fall. My parents are getting older. My aunts and uncles are getting older. I’m getting older. So we just really try to cherish it.”
Northwest Missouri State has three championships overall, while Lenoir-Rhyne is going for its first. Dorrel wants another title for the Maryville community and his 12 graduating seniors, just as Houston covets the school’s first for Hickory and the school’s alums.
“It would mean a lot for our seniors,” said Dorrel, the 2013 MIAA conference coach of the year. “Those are the guys that deserve it the most, because they’ve earned the right. We really want to do it for all those people we’ve talked about, but especially for our seniors.”
Dorrel was a graduate assistant with the Bearcats during its 1999 national championship run and offensive coordinator for its most recent title in 2009. He would dearly love to grab a third title as an early Christmas present, but to Dorrel, it’s all about perspective,
“It would mean a lot to me, but I’ll be real honest with you,” he concluded. “I try to keep things in perspective in my life. I know at the end that I’m not going to be measured by how many football games I won or lost.
“I’m going to be measured by what kind of husband I was, the father I was, the kind of coach I was and how I treated kids. I just always try to put things in perspective. I think that just helps us stay focused on what we’re trying to do without putting a lot of undue pressure on myself or on the kids.”