Rocky Mountain College’s first NAIA playoff football game since 1999 will take place Saturday afternoon in Sioux City, Iowa.
The No. 10-ranked Battlin’ Bears, 8-3, received an at-large berth and will take on No. 5 Morningside College, 9-1, in the opening round of the 16-team Football Championship Series, which announced its pairings on Sunday afternoon.
Rocky’s junior quarterback Bryce Baker can’t wait to challenge the 2012 national runner-up Mustangs, who will be hosting their sixth consecutive first-round game.
“Obviously I’ve heard of Morningside,” Baker said. “I think they were ranked No. 1 all year, so it’s going to be tough. We thought really any team we played in the postseason is going to be tough.
“So we’ve just got to stick to the basics. It’s just another game and, you know, we’ve been playing well. We’ve just got to continue to do that.”
Rocky closed out its regular season on Saturday with a 49-28 victory over Montana State Northern in Havre. Morningside defeated Doane College 51-13 in Sioux City.
Saturday’s playoff game at Elwood Olsen Stadium is scheduled to start at 11 a.m. Mountain time. The Bears will bus to Iowa later this week.
“It will be a great opportunity for our program,” Rocky coach Brian Armstrong said of the matchup. “We kind of know where we measure up in the Frontier (Conference). Like I’ve said, this is something this group and even groups before have been working toward for a long time.
“So we’re very thankful that they get the opportunity to continue this season. Now we’ll go see if we can figure out a way to go win.”
Rocky’s 13-year absence from the playoffs is the longest drought among this year’s national qualifiers. Morningside is making its 10th consecutive appearance in the playoffs.
The Mustangs, who beat Montana Tech 40-35 in the first round last year and Southern Oregon University 47-44 in overtime in the quarterfinals, went 13-1 last season.
Morningside lost 30-27 in overtime to Marian (Ind.) University in the NAIA championship game in Rome, Ga.
“A very storied and proud tradition at Morningside,” Armstrong said.
The Rocky players gathered in the auditorium in the Fortin Center Sunday to watch the first-round pairings for the playoffs be unveiled on the NAIA’s selection show.
When Rocky appeared in the bracket, loud cheers erupted.
“It’s definitely exciting,” Baker said. “I mean, coming into this season we never really necessarily talked about the postseason, but I think deep down everyone’s goal is to definitely continue playing when the regular season is over.
“It’s going to be a good challenge, but we’ve just got to do what we’ve been doing all year and just execute.”
Besides the Bears, Frontier champion Carroll College, 10-1 and ranked third nationally, will be at home for the opening round to face No. 13 Georgetown, Ky., which is 7-3.
Rocky has lost only two games on the field this season — both to Carroll and by a combined nine points. The Bears had to forfeit an earlier win over Southern Oregon for unknowingly using an ineligible player, but are appealing that ruling by the NAIA.
“I definitely think that our game in Helena a couple of weeks ago was, in my estimation, a playoff-caliber game atmosphere,” Armstrong said of Rocky’s last-second 37-35 loss to the Saints. “We made some mistakes, so hopefully we’ll be better for that, better prepared for what we’re going to encounter this weekend. We’ll see.”
Morningside, which won its third straight Great Plains Athletic Conference title this fall, spent nine consecutive weeks at No. 1 in the NAIA Top 25 poll this season. The Mustangs lost at Northwestern, Iowa, 38-28, on Nov. 9 to drop out of the top spot.
Earlier Sunday, the NAIA also released its final regular-season Top 25 coaches poll.
Cumberlands, Ky., 10-0, finished No. 1, followed by Grand View, Iowa, 10-0, and Carroll.
The top seven teams remained unchanged from the previous week.
Rocky climbed from No. 11 to No. 10, while No. 9 Faulkner, Ala., 9-2, and No. 8 Benedictine, Kan., 10-1, also moved up a spot from the previous poll.
Eastern Oregon joined Carroll and Rocky as Frontier teams in the final regular-season poll. EOU made its first appearance of the season in the poll, coming in at No. 25. The Mountaineers finished their season at 6-5.