Game On

Mel Tjeerdsma, head football coach of the Northwest Missouri State Bearcats, wandered through the postgame mob at midfield looking for his kids. Mixed in the November 2 melee of fans, family and friends were his “children” — all 100 or so of them still dressed in grimy green game jerseys and smelling of success.

Tjeerdsma’s Bearcats had just handed the Central Missouri State Mules their first loss of the season, a 10-7 slobberknocker on a gray, bone-cold day. Rickenbrode Stadium in Maryville, Missouri, had been packed with a standing-room-only crowd. This tilt had been billed as the biggest game in CMSU history and “the game of the year” in the Mid-American Intercollegiate Athletic Association.

Amid the well-wishers, Tjeerdsma (he pronounces it church-ma) spied Geoff Bollinger, his junior center from Blue Springs High. Tjeerdsma threw his arms around the 6-foot-4-inch, 300-pound Bollinger and whispered proudly into his ear. Tjeerdsma repeated this greeting to every Bearcat he could find.

Like Bollinger, many Kansas City high-school athletes are discovering that NWMSU, CMSU and other MIAA institutions are great places to spend their college careers — even though they’re “only” in the NCAA Division II conference.

“Coming out of high school, I was kinda hazy on the fact that I was going Division II,” Bollinger told the Pitch after the game. “I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do. But I came to Northwest, and it’s great football. It’s a great atmosphere to play in…. We’ve got two national titles and I don’t know how many conference titles.”

Area student athletes who’ve played football at the University of Missouri haven’t won a conference title since 1969. The University of Kansas’ kids last tasted a Big 8 title in 1968. To find Kansas State’s most recent conference crown, you’d have to go back to 1934, when the league was known as the Big Six.

How much fun did Kansas’ D-I scholarship athletes from Olathe, Kansas City and Grandview have in Lawrence Saturday while K-State was pounding them 64-0?

Bollinger understands it’s not easy to convince high-school athletes that Maryville, Warrensburg and Pittsburg can offer the same kind of college experience as Lawrence, Columbia and Manhattan. “I know where those high-school kids are sitting,” Bollinger said. “They’re still thinking that D-I is the best … and they do get the best players. D-II players haven’t matured yet like some guys who go to Nebraska and Missouri. After a year in D-II, though, guys’ bodies start to develop. They become more of a man, and they’re ready to go. There are great football players all around this conference.”

Just outside Rickenbrode Stadium, CMSU’s players shuffled toward their buses with heads held high, despite their stabbing loss. These Mules knew they’d probably get another crack at the Bearcats in the D-II playoffs semifinals on December 7.

“A lot of Kansas City kids expect to go D-I, obviously,” said Kegan Coleman, CMSU’s sensational sophomore running back from Lee’s Summit North. Coleman leads the conference in rushing, and he dented the Bearcat defense for 94 yards on Saturday, scoring the Mules’ only touchdown. “I think a lot of the D-II players in our conference could play at the D-I level,” he added. In this league, starting lineups sport athletes from Hawaii, Texas, Utah, California, Arizona, Georgia, Oklahoma and Florida. “I just want to tell young kids that, man, it’s not like a loss that you’re not going to a D-I school,” Coleman said. “There is a lot of great competition at this level, too.”

After the game, Mike Tiehen, a 2000 Rockhurst grad, stripped the tape from his wrists in the Bearcats’ steamy locker room. “I think you judge a good team by their work ethic, and our work ethic here is the same as what we had at Rockhurst,” said the sophomore defensive end. “Coming from Rockhurst, I was used to playing top teams and we have that same kind of great competition here.”

Almost 28,000 fans filed into Arrowhead Stadium last month to watch Northwest Missouri knock off its longtime rival, Pittsburg State. Division II is no longer this area’s best-kept football secret — among fans or the high-school studs who make it so popular.

Categories: A&E