KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- After following up its 2017, 9-3 campaign with a 10-2 record, an MIAA co-championship and some postseason exposure last season, Northwest football is hoping to build.
The Bearcats were picked first in the MIAA preseason media poll for the seventh straight year and eighth time overall since the poll’s inception in 2011 but were slotted second in the coaches poll.
This marks the second time since 2011 Northwest has not been ranked first in the coaches poll. The lowest the ‘Cats have ever been ranked in either poll is second.
Northwest’s final game of last season was a comeback that fell short against Ferris State, who went on to play in the national championship game, in the second round of the playoffs. From that squad, the Bearcats returned 13 starters — seven offensive, six defensive — with postseason exposure.
“Throughout the summer we’ve been hosting practice with basically the whole team,” senior captain linebacker Andy Hessler said, “We’ve been watching film as a group. Obviously, coach Wright is going to demand excellence from us and we carry our young guys with us upperclassmen to teach them the way.”
Hessler added to the No. 14 ranked total defense in the country last year with 16 tackles and seven tackles for loss in two games last season. The Hartland, Wisconsin, native’s season was cut short due to injury last year.
“Andy is a phenomenal leader and a great kid,” Wright said. “He’s done a tremendous job for us. I’m looking forward to seeing what he can do when he gets back out there and he’s like having another coach, really. His knowledge of the game and his understanding of what we do systematically (is good) … he’s been in our program for five years so he understands the ins and the outs.”
One of those seven returning from the offense is senior captain Marqus Andrews. The 6-foot-3 tight end was an Honorable Mention to the All-MIAA team last season with 222 receiving yards and four touchdowns in 12 games.
“I’m pretty confident (about the offense) this year,” Andrews said. “I'm excited to get into fall camp and in the weight room. We’ve been working out all summer practicing, watching film, seven-on-seven, working that cohesion as a unit. We’re returning a lot of guys and obviously need to fill some voids but I have no doubt that the guys coming in to fill those voids will be able to do it, if not do it better.”
Now in his third year at the helm, Rich Wright has something this year he’s never had before: a returning quarterback.
The Bearcats return MIAA Freshman Player of the Year in Braden Wright. In his first year of collegiate football, the Elkhorn, Nebraska, native racked up 3,110 total yards with 35 touchdowns. Braden Wright was second in the MIAA for passing yards and touchdown passes.
“Braden’s development is profound,” Rich Wright said. “Just to go through the season, everyone in this room knows how tough the MIAA is, to gain some playoff experience, to develop some cohesion with his teammates. You can just see how he’s carrying himself in the complex, he’s just a different kid.”
The way Braden Wright has improved is a shared sentiment between players and coaches. Andrews has also noticed a spike Braden Wright’s growth.
“He’s become a better player and a better leader especially,” Andrews said. “He’s kind of taken the reins a little more. Last year, he was a freshman so we kind of had to help him along and this year I feel like he can be a lot better player.
During the summer workouts, Andrews saw first hand the extra work that Braden Wright has taken part in.
He’s taking guys out and running routes all the time, putting in that extra work that we have to put in,” Andrews said. “He’s always in the film room with me and a couple of the older receivers. He’s figuring out what the defense is trying to do whenever we are running our plays during those player-led seven-on-sevens.
“I’m expecting some big things out of him this year.”