There were plenty of moments to cheer this fall and numerous performances worth celebrating during the course of Rocky Mountain College’s history-making football season.
The Battlin’ Bears’ landmark campaign came to a close on a frigid afternoon last Saturday in Sioux City, Iowa, with a 40-21 loss to No. 5-ranked Morningside College in the first round of the 16-team NAIA playoffs.
For Rocky, which was ranked 10th in the country, it was the school’s first appearance in the postseason since 1999.
That was, of course, the most important accomplishment this fall in what was the continuation of quite a Rocky revival in football.
With its fastbreak offense and quick, physical play on defense, there’s no question that fifth-year head coach Brian Armstrong and his staff have the program in its best shape in a long time.
“I’m just proud of our kids,” Armstrong said this week. “They were resilient. They had to overcome adversity multiple times, which good football teams find a way to do. We were able to take another positive step forward with the program.
“I appreciate all of their hard work. That group of seniors, man, they’ve put a lot of work into this program, so I’m very appreciative of their efforts and attitude.”
Rocky, which was ranked as high as seventh in the NAIA Top 25 poll this season, finished with an 8-4 record, but actually went 9-3 on the field, losing to only teams ranked in the top five or better in the NAIA (Carroll College twice and Morningside) along the way.
The Bears had to forfeit an early-season 35-30 victory at then No. 14-ranked Southern Oregon University because they unknowingly used an ineligible player on a few snaps.
That ruling by the NAIA is being appealed by Rocky. If it is reversed, a nine-win season would tie the school record for the winningest fall ever, matching the win totals of the school’s only other playoff teams from 1998 and 1999.
It would also make Armstrong the second-winningest head coach — with 28 wins — in the 65-year history of Bear football.
Armstrong, for one, doesn’t feel a successful appeal is necessary for history’s sake when it comes to validating his Bears’ performance.
“We won that game,” he said. “Just go ask anybody.”
Against Morningside, Rocky wasn’t able to shake off a slow start versus the Mustangs, who bolted ahead 16-0, 23-7 and 33-14 in the first half. Morningside, last year’s national runner-up, entered the game as the NAIA’s highest-scoring team at 51.5 points per outing.
“We wish we would have played our best at the end and given ourselves a chance, and we didn’t,” Armstrong said. “That was a disappointing way to end a good year, but Morningside had a lot to do with that. A very good football team, with a very special tailback (in sophomore Brandon Wegher, who rushed for 277 yards and two touchdowns).”
That playoff loss, however, takes nothing away from the season’s lasting achievements, which also included winning at Montana Tech for the first since 1999 and just missing out on a last-minute victory at Carroll, which would have been a first since 2000.
“I think if nothing else we’re starting to establish some tradition,” Armstrong said. “The old saying ‘ tradition never graduates’ ... if you look at the bluebloods of college football at any level from FBS to NAIA, they’re pretty consistently good.
“We aspire to become more consistent. We’re starting to become fairly consistent. We need to raise the level of that consistency a little bit.”
With its spread attack and short, quick passing game, Rocky racked up some remarkable numbers and made stars out of quarterback Bryce Baker, receivers Andre McCullouch and Cole Cattelan and tailback Jade Olson, who will all be returning next season.
Operating behind a veteran-laden offensive line, Baker, a junior, completed 70 percent of his passes this season in throwing for 3,893 yards and 31 touchdowns. He had just seven interceptions.
On the receiving end, McCullouch, a sophomore, and Cattelan, a junior, combined to make 132 catches for 2,111 yards and 18 touchdowns.
Olson, Rocky’s smallest player at 5-foot-6, rushed for a team-high 454 yards and five touchdowns. He also had 269 yards in receptions and three more scores.
Defensively, the Bears will regrettably have to say goodbye to determined group of seniors, including linebackers Josh Johnson and Travis Bertelsen, whose leadership and over 100 tackles apiece this season were decisive in the team’s success.
However, there is a budding standout or two returning on that side of the ball, including sophomore defensive back Kyle Mai, who had four interceptions and was in on 60 tackles.
Young defensive linemen Seth Swandal, Brendon Johnson, Austin Chamberlain and Wyatt Johnson were also in on some key tackles or sacks, while Jordan Upton, Corey Bummer and RJ Taylor had their big moments in the secondary.
Junior placekicker Ryan Steska accounted for a team-high 84 points with his 11 field goals and 51 extra-point kicks.
“We’ve got a nice group of guys returning,” Armstrong said. “At the same time, there’s some holes that we’re going to need to fill. Some of those are going to be filled by guys we have here. Some of it will be guys that we need to go find.
“We’re already in the middle of trying to do that now.”
Morningside’s win over Rocky was the Mustangs’ 100th since beginning a 10-year playoff run in 2004. The Bears have just 39 wins during that stretch, but 25 of them have come in the last four seasons.
“Like I told our seniors, 10 years from now in their minds they will all be better than they actually were,” Armstrong said with a grin. “That’s how time works.”
There’s no need, however, for this group of Bears to embellish anything down the road. After this season, they already own a special spot in Rocky’s football lore.