Bighaus: Improvement is Battlin' Bears' spring focus

2013-03-21T17:15:00Z 2013-03-22T00:56:04Z Bighaus: Improvement is Battlin' Bears' spring focus The Billings Gazette

It should come as no surprise that Carroll College has been the Frontier Conference's winningest football program over the past three seasons.

The Fighting Saints have gone 34-6 during that stretch with a couple of Frontier titles and a sixth NAIA national championship.

So who is tied for No. 2 in the league for victories over the past three years?

Rocky Mountain College, for one.

Coach Brian Armstrong's Battlin' Bears have compiled a 17-16 record -- including a runner-up finish in the Frontier in 2010 and an upset win over Carroll during the 2012 campaign.

"I think that we're improving, for sure," said Armstrong. "But it's not like I can ever see a point during my time where I can say 'Hey, we're where we need to be.'"

Rocky's winning season last fall was just the school's 13th in 63 years, and the fifth-year head coach said in making headway, "it's a constant daily effort of wanting to improve yourself, your program and your team.

"To steal a line from the University of Oregon, we talked to our kids about winning the day and grinding out daily the things that you need to get done in order to get better," Armstrong said.

With that as a mindset, Rocky launched spring drills on a sunny Wednesday afternoon. The Bears are planning to be back outside on Friday and Saturday.

Rocky has scheduled 15 practices over the next five weeks — and is looking to make each one count. The workouts will culminate with the annual spring game April 19 on Wendy's Field at Daylis Stadium.

Around 95 players just finished with Rocky's winter conditioning program. The turnout for spring practice is about 10 players more than it was last year, Armstrong said.

Besides formulating a battle plan for the fall and evaluating personnel, the main emphasis this spring, as usual, will be on fundamentals: blocking, tackling, catching and throwing.

"We want to develop that daily," Armstrong said. "That used to be really the biggest emphasis, but it seems like with the camp window getting shorter and shorter as far as when we report in August, schematics, you know, are becoming more and more important for spring, too."

Rocky will begin its fall drills on Aug. 8, and play its season opener Aug. 23 in Miles City against Jamestown (N.D.) College.

The Bears started 3-0 last year and ended with a two-game winning streak to finish at 6-5. While it was just the school's 13th winning season since 1949, it was Rocky's second in three years.

The 17 wins since 2010 also ties the Bears with Eastern Oregon University, which has posted a 17-15 mark, for No. 2 in victories behind Carroll.

That's certainly an upbeat footnote Rocky is hoping to build on as the Bears headed back outside.

"I think their work ethic has been pretty darn good," Armstrong said of his team's offseason performance. "Kind of what we wanted to develop this offseason was effort, toughness, discipline, commitment and then pride.

"That's kind of what we've gone to work every day trying to accomplish. I think that we are seeing dividends from some of that. We've got 15 padded practices here to continue to work on that."

In addition to the large turnout, Rocky will be returning a number of standouts on both sides of the ball this spring and fall.

There is quarterback Bryce Baker, for starters. He threw for 2,384 yards and 17 touchdowns last season — and also rushed for six more scores.

Then there are receivers Andre McCollouch and Cole Cattelan, who combined to catch 93 passes for 1,169 yards and nine TDs last fall.

Four starters — Neal Coon, Jeff Houser, Mike Lopez and Sonny AhKui — also return on the offensive line.

On defense, Rocky is bringing back its top four tacklers in linebackers Jacob Barit, Josh Johnson and Travis Bertelsen, along with defensive back Corey Bummer.

Barit finished with 84 tackles — including 10.5 for loss and 4.5 sacks — and Bertelsen intercepted five passes.

While the returnees have some impressive credentials, last year's redshirts and some promising transfers will also be looking to make some waves on the depth chart.

What does all that mean for this fall?

"I really don't have any idea," Armstrong said. "We're a ways off from worrying about next fall. We need to come every day with the singular focus of getting better and, like I said, developing fundamentals and working on those five key characteristics of effort, toughness, discipline, commitment and pride.

"It's pointless for us to offer conjecture on what next fall could bring."

So with no grand promises, but plenty of hard work ahead, Armstrong said his players were just eager to hit the field and reap the rewards of their months of conditioning and weight lifting.

There will be scrimmages open to the public on April 6 and 13.

"For coaches, I think it's a great time," Armstrong said of the spring. "We're not focused on an opponent. Really our entire focus is just about getting better."

And playing more winning football in the fall.



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