Fall is the time for college football, and the Northern Michigan University Wildcats are gearing up for another season on the gridiron. This year’s team is headed by a hungry, determined group of seasoned veterans and features plenty of new faces.
The team plans to improve on their 2-8 record from last season through hard work and training.
“Our key strategy is nine months of hard work,” said head coach Bernie Anderson, who is heading into his fourth season with the Wildcats.
The ‘Cats have been back on the gridiron since Aug. 8, working two-a-day practices or watching films every day. In fact, Aug. 29 will be the team’s first day of rest since beginning practices. Through a tough training regimen, Anderson hopes to solve what he saw as the biggest problem plaguing the team last year.
“We were not a well conditioned football team last year, and I didn’t think we were mentally as tough as we needed to be. We’ve had a very heavy [conditioning load] in the past two weeks to take care of it and address it,” he said. Anderson even went as far as to hire USOEC weightlifting head coach Andy Tysz to help strengthen and condition the players.
The ‘Cats lost several key players from last year’s squad, so this season a new round of captains and seniors will step up.
Go-to wide receivers Fred Wells and Dan Elmore graduated. Both were seniors last year and major facets of the Wildcat offense. Elmore was an All-GLIAC honorable mention for the 2008 season.
“They were both impact players,” said Anderson. “No question about that.”
Despite their departure, Anderson is optimistic that junior co-captain Dustin Brancheau and senior Zach Nichols will fill any voids.
“I don’t think it’s as much about what you lose as about what you have coming back,” he said. “Hopefully we won’t miss a beat. I think we have two very good players in Nichols and Brancheau.”
Also gone are Tim Larson and Alex Grignon from the defensive squad. Grignon was also an All-GLIAC honorable mention last year. Heading the defense this year is senior captain and linebacker Nathan Yelk from Arlington, Wis. He returns to the ‘Cats after finishing last season with a team-leading 98 tackles.
“He’s the backbone of the defense,” Anderson said of Yelk. “He’s a player that I think affects everybody else’s play and brings them to a new level. He makes us a better defense.”
Yelk was named team MVP in 2008 and was an All-GLIAC second team selection. He will be joined on the line by transfer students Anthony Echols, Demetri Stewart and Eric Wells.
Quarterback is one position remaining largely the same. Sophomore Carter Kopach returns to start for the ‘Cats, having finished the 2008 season with 1190 passing yards and nine passing touchdowns. Ben Hempel is also returning to compete for the starting slot with transfer student Brad McClellan.
“Kopach is number one right now,” Anderson said. “Hempel is second, McClellan is third.” Hempel finished last season with 593 passing yards and six touchdowns.
Star running back and 2008 honorable mention All-GLIAC selection Mark Bossuah will return, aided by freshman Antonio Wallace of Tampa, Fla. Bossuah was only able to play in six games last season, but led the team with 683 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Anderson is counting on Bossuah to lead the team in the right direction.
“We need his leadership, and his toughness, and his experience,” Anderson said. “He’s led by example in the past. He’s a senior, so [we need his] determination to leave on a great senior year.”
Anderson also said that the team hopes to start the season off on the right note and improve as the season progresses.
“[We hope to] be more team oriented, win the first game, get better every day, just the simple little basics,” he said.
The seniors on the team also hope to make their final year a successful one.
“We’re always aiming for a GLIAC championship,” said senior offensive lineman and co-captain Jack Rustman. “We’re aiming for over .500, and taking it week by week and game by game, and seeing where things go from there.”
Rustman’s hopes for the team ride on his ability to keep everyone motivated and unified in their goals.
“There’s a lot of different personalities on a football team,” he said. “The captains just have to bring everyone together.”
The Wildcats will start their season off on Sept. 5 at Northwood. The ‘Cats won last year’s matchup against the Timberwolves by a score of 30-7, but Coach Anderson is not underestimating them.
“They have 21 seniors,” he said of the Timberwolves. “They had a disappointing year last year, but I’m sure they’re excited to start over and improve.”
The game will be broadcast on 100.3 FM.
The Wildcats’ first home game is Sept. 12 against the Tiffin Dragons. Kickoff is at 4 p.m.