By Ben Johnson
TAHLEQUAH — All Northeastern State is after is respectability.
Heading into its second year of existence in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association, Northeastern State closely resembles a fraternity pledge hoping to catch a glimpse from a legacy. Perhaps a pat on the back from a frat brother, or heck, maybe even a handshake.
Hasn’t happened yet, though.
The RiverHawks are still gazing into the fraternity dining room while the house brothers enjoyed a steak dinner.
A 4-6 season in 2012 provided NSU with some glances from its MIAA brethren. But there’s still a prevailing feeling that the RiverHawks could still being overlooked in the conference.
“There’s a level of respect that these teams in the conference have for each other,” Northeastern State offensive coordinator Paul Lane said. “They’ve played each other for so many years, and there’s a level of confidence and respect that they have for themselves and each other.”
A quick look at this year’s league preseason polls confirm that. No one — that’s right, not a single team — finished the 2012 season with more consecutive victories than NSU. The RiverHawks posted wins over Central Missouri, Southwest Baptist, Lincoln and Central Oklahoma, yet NSU found itself buried at 10th and 11th in the media and coaches poll, respectively.
“I think we’re better than what people say,” NSU head coach Kenny Evans said. “But to this league’s credit, it is very good from top to bottom. It’s known as the toughest football league in Division II, and rightly so.
“You have to do it on the field, and in our one year, we won four, but we haven’t been in that upper echelon. Until we do that on the field, I don’t think you’ll get the respect that you want.”
It’s not just coaches that recognize NSU’s lack of clout in the MIAA. Players also know they’re still chasing a level of higher esteem.
“We’re still going to be the underdog,” NSU quarterback Johnny Deaton said. “We haven’t been in the league, and no one has any respect for us until we prove ourselves — this being our second year into (the league). We have to earn that, and I think going out with a four-game winning streak last year kind of opened some people’s eyes up.
“Hopefully no one should overlook us this year.”
Many of the same players that righted the ship late in NSU’s season in 2012 are back this year. Joel Rockmore returns as the RiverHawks’ — and the league’s — most potent running back. The defense still includes cornerback Vernon Jones and the MIAA’s leading tackler in linebacker Langston Jones.
In fact, NSU’s defense is projected to start eight seniors, including the Jones duo, defensive tackles Faafetai Te’o and Kenny Garrett, inside linebacker Jack Gray, fellow cornerback Marquin Watts and free safety Victor Johnson — an Oklahoma State transfer.
“I don’t think there is any doubt that this could be the best football team we’ve fielded, going into my sixth year,” Evans said. “At the same time, the competition level that we play in our first six games may not show it record-wise. I don’t think we’ll be scared or back off of any of them, and I think we’ll have a chance to win any and all of those games. But at the same time, our guys know how hard it is to win in this conference.”
NSU’s prolonged initiation into the MIAA fraternity is still ongoing. Perhaps this season will be the year the RiverHawks pick up their lapel pin.
1. Can any MIAA teams — other than Northwest Missouri State or Missouri Western — enter the national playoff picture?
With the MIAA now paired with the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, it is now harder for the MIAA to secure postseason berths. With that said, it could be up to Pittsburg State, Washburn or a possible darkhorse (Emporia State, Central Missouri) to snag what will likely be two national playoff berths in the league.
2. Can any other teams produce a top-shelf running back that’ll compete with the league’s top two tailbacks, both in the state of Oklahoma?
Michael Hill was the MIAA’s best running back in 2012. He piled up 2,168 yards, which was more than 1,000 yards better than his closest competitor. But, he’s gone now. Northeastern State’s Joel Rockmore and Central Oklahoma’s Josh Birmingham return, headlining the ball carrier class this season. Most other teams graduated their best running backs last season, so can Washburn’s Hayden Groves or Central Missouri’s LaVance Taylor have enough production to contend for First Team honors come November?
3. Will the league crown be decided on Nov. 16?
Northwest Missouri State and Missouri Western are slated to meet in St. Joesph, Mo., in the middle of November and both could be in line to win the conference. Or, could Pittsburg State have a chance at the MIAA crown when it hosts Missouri Southern on the same day? Or is there a sleeper that will have to avoid disaster in the last week of the season.