COLUMN: Can NMU football rise above the rest?

kyle.whitney and kyle.whitney

After last year’s sub-par regular season, the NMU hockey team showed some fire in their upset victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes in the CCHA Playoffs.

The men’s basketball team then attempted to cast a spell of their own come March, pushing the Grand Valley State Lakers to overtime in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) Tournament competition.

The Wildcat football team, on the other hand, opened up their season with a pair of victories against Indianapolis and Hillsdale before dropping seven of their final eight games. Following a 47-17 home loss to Grand Valley State, the ‘Cats limped into the offseason battered, bruised and exhausted.

But despite finishing far behind the other two aforementioned clubs last year, the NMU football team may be the most rewarding team to follow during the 2007 season. And while it is yet to be seen if the football team has what it takes to finally win a conference title of their own, it appears that the only one of the three major Wildcat men’s teams, that will seriously improve on last year’s mark, will be the one on the gridiron.

It is no secret that Northern is a hockey school. The skaters face Division-I competition, while most other NMU sports compete at the D-II level. The hockey ‘Cats make the headlines, draw the crowds and, we hope, gain national recognition.

The outlook for the upcoming hockey season, however, is not a bright one and the team is in a clear transition period. Through graduation, NMU lost team leaders Pat Bateman and Darin Olver. If that hole wasn’t large enough, the ‘Cats also lost assistant coach John Olver and forward Mike Santorelli, last year’s leading goal-scorer.

All told, the Wildcats have watched 69 of last year’s 96 goals walk out the door. They are a young team that is looking to prove themselves and find their niche. After finishing last season 10th in the CCHA (15-24-1 overall, 10-17-1 CCHA), NMU may see an improvement this season, but don’t expect anything too drastic.

On the hardwood, the ‘Cats finished at 18-11-their best record in recent memory-and narrowly missed gaining a berth to the NCAA D-II Tournament. Last season’s two top-scoring Wildcats, Will Washington (14.2 ppg) and Ricky Volcy (22.5 ppg), have both graduated.

NMU’s success was a slight surprise last year and they may have snuck up on opponents a couple of times over the course of the season. After their strong season-ending run and the single point overtime loss in the GLIAC Tournament semi-finals the ‘Cats won’t slide under the radar any longer. This year’s version of the team certainly has potential, but they may have some difficulty re-creating last year’s success with a bull’s-eye on their backs and without those 36 points every game.

Over the last three seasons, on the other hand, the football team has amassed a GLIAC-worst 7-23 record. Last year, the still-green team was wracked by injury and inexperience en route to their disappointing finish.

This season will see the return of a solid receiving corps led by senior Fred Wells, who finished his junior season with 870 yards and nine touchdowns. The NMU passing game-which ranked first in the GLIAC in yards per game last season-will now be bolstered by Keven Hagans, the former University of Illinois recruit from Franklin, WI.

After last season, the words “Gary Buddy Rivera” were finally etched onto the NMU Football MVP Trophy in honor of the Wildcats’ offensive leader that finished the 2006 season with 2,399 yards and 20 touchdowns. Rivera, now a senior, will be under center once more this season and has just one last chance to leave a permanent mark on the landscape of NMU sports. The opportunity, and the team, is his.

The football team is coming together now and should be on the same page this season more than any time in recent memory. The returning players have all experienced a full year under the tutelage of head coach Bernie Anderson and they know what their coaches-and their teammates-expect. They seem to have the leadership, the desire and the ability to finally, after years of frustration, put it all together.

And on an average fall afternoon a few short days from now, the NMU Wildcat football team will find itself in a largely unfamiliar position. As they take to the field in Indianapolis in preparation for their season-opening game against the University of Indianapolis Greyhounds the football ‘Cats will be shouldering a great intangible weight: that of NMU’s sporting pride.