The words that Northwest Missouri State head coach Adam Dorrel uttered back in January took senior quarterback Brady Bolles and the other upperclassmen by surprise.
The Bearcats were coming off a 10-2 season. They tied for first in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association and made the NCAA Division II playoffs.
Despite losing numerous players, the mindset of the returners heading into the offseason weight lifting workouts was to improve on the first round loss in 2014.
But Dorrel told them that on paper, they were a 7-4 team.
“To be honest, we all went back to the locker room and said, ‘can you believe that, 7-4?’ We were shocked at first,” Bolles said.
It was imaginable for a program that made its 12th straight appearance in the NCAA Division II playoffs this season. Brady and many of the senior and junior starters on the 2015 team saw action in the 2013 championship game that Northwest Missouri won 43-28 over Lenoir-Rhyne.
The last time Northwest Missouri lost four games in a season was 2001 when it went 7-4 after a spectacular three-year run from 1998 through 2000 when the Bearcats won two national titles and compiled a 40-2 record.
Dorrel is close enough to former Northwest Missouri coach Mel Tjeerdsma, now the athletic director at the school, to know what happen in 2001. The Bearcats were breaking in a number of young players who just expected the success to continue based on what they saw in previous seasons.
With only nine seniors returning for 2015, Dorrel knew the Bearcats were going to rely on a lot of freshmen and sophomores. He wanted to make sure history didn’t repeat.
“We took it to heart. AD knows what he is doing. It was a rallying cry,” Bolles said. “We bought in and said we are not going to be 7-4. We want to be better than that. We really used it all through the summer. We used it to challenge guys. We said, ‘hey, do you want to be 7-4 this year because I don’t.’ We did extra stuff. We used it as motivation.”
The preseason words by Dorrel worked. Northwest Missouri, 14-0, will be playing in its ninth NCAA Division II championship game since 1998 and seeking its fifth title. The Bearcats will take on Shepherd, 13-0, at 3 p.m. CT Saturday at Sporting Park in Kansas City, Kan.
After two easy wins to start the season, Dorrel’s dire prediction of a 7-4 season definitely looked plausible. The Bearcats traveled to Warrensburg, Mo., and faced nemesis Central Missouri in week three.
Northwest struggled on offense and trailed 23-6 midway through the third quarter. The Bearcats fought back, but with a minute left, they trailed 30-27 and had the ball on their 27.
“The thing that I saw was our leadership on the sideline, starting with Brady and Shane Smith,” Dorrel said. “We hung around and then Brady led us on a 70-yard drive at the end of the game and made three huge passes and ran in a quarterback draw for a touchdown. It really sat into me, by watching our kids interact, that our chemistry was really good. We followed up and was down against Central Oklahoma and we rallied to win that game.”
After two narrow victories, Northwest won its next 10 games by double digits.
Dorrel credits the senior class for creating an atmosphere of success this season. They made sure the freshmen and sophomores were comfortable. They were patient with them when mistakes were made. No matter how tight a situation became in a game, there was never any finger pointing.
The seniors knew if they were going to get to another championship game, they needed the freshmen and sophomores to perform at a high level. They have. Freshman wide receiver Shawn Bane Jr., has caught 76 passes for 1,143 yards and eight touchdowns. He is one of many underclassmen who have made key contributions.
“I have been fortunate at Northwest Missouri State to have great senior classes every year,” Dorrel said. “The group of seniors I have this year have been special. What stands out to me is this group of seniors raised the bar.”
One of the biggest things the seniors did in Dorrel’s mind was to make sure everybody played unselfishly.
“Every year you have a little bit of a different identity,” Dorrel said. “The thing that resonates with me is I think our kids love each other, they play for each other and they play very hard. As a head coach, at the end of the day, that is all I can ask for. It has been a lot of fun.”
The hard work, the belief that they were better than a 7-4 team has made this a special ride for the seniors.
“Everybody wants to go out with a bang your senior year,” Bolles said. “2013 was a great year and a lot of fun. When you are a senior, it makes things a little more sweet. You enjoy the little things more and really take time to appreciate all the things you are blessed with.
“At Northwest, I am very blessed to be here the last five years. It has been great run and that is why this year has been so special for me.”