BILLINGS — Jason Petrino never closes a door on a potential recruit, even if they are walking out.
Because you never know who might walk back in the room.
“As you develop relationships with players and they tell you no, you don’t dislike them anymore,” the Rocky Mountain College football coach said. “You thank them and wish them luck as they try other opportunities.
“And you tell them if they need anything, let me know.”
Turns out some needed to be Battlin’ Bears.
Petrino and his coaching staff unveiled Rocky’s recruiting class for 2018 on Wednesday morning in the Fortin Center Hall of Fame rooms.
The Battlin’ Bears signed 43 players, including 36 freshmen. The players are from eight states, including 14 from Idaho and 12 from Montana. There are seven mid-year transfers.
“Just fired up,” said Petrino of describing his mood on the most hopeful day of the year for football coaches. “We were able to fill a lot of needs.”
The program focused on the line of scrimmage, adding eight defensive linemen and seven offensive linemen. The Battlin’ Bears also signed seven wide receivers.
“We wanted more depth on the offensive and defensive lines,” Petrino said. “And we wanted to improve our athleticism at linebacker and the other skill positions. We were able to do that.
“Kids left bigger scholarships on the table because of what we’re doing here. I think the best of times of Rocky football is the near future.”
The Battlin’ Bears finished 6-5 overall and third in the Frontier Conference at 6-4. Rocky was picked to finish sixth in the league standings in the coach’s preseason poll last fall.
Of the seven mid-year transfers, four are from Montana. The four local athletes coming back home are quarterback Nathan Dick, wide receiver Casey Cole, wide receiver Chaz Maddock, and defensive lineman Lane Severson.
“To get players like that is exciting,” said Petrino. “We always want to recruit Montana first. We’re also excited about the other ones who chose to play here.”
Dick was the 2016 Montana Gatorade Player of the Year after leading Billings Senior to its first Class AA state championship since 1979. He originally signed with the University of Montana.
He joins a Rocky team that will feature returning starters Jacob Bakken and Drew Korf. Bakken, who will be a senior this fall, played in six games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. He threw for 830 yards and five touchdowns.
Korf finished out the season, throwing for 1,595 yards and 14 touchdowns on 134 of 222 passing. The true freshman passed for 477 yards and five touchdowns in the final game of the season, a 48-42 overtime win over Montana Western.
“It makes us better,” said Petrino of the sudden crowd at quarterback. “Competition makes every program better.
“When Nate called, we told him there are no guarantees. All we could provide is opportunity. And I think he appreciated that.”
Cole, of Laurel, was a nationally ranked javelin thrower who signed with the UM track and field program. Cole suffered a season-ending leg injury his senior year with the Locomotives. He initially came back to Rocky as a quarterback, but opted to play receiver after a meeting with Petrino on Tuesday.
Maddock was an all-state selection on both defense and offense for Billings West, while Severson was an all-state player for Billings Skyview.
Petrino said Rocky will sign “another handful” of players as the state basketball tournaments finish out in March. He and his staff will be at the state wrestling tournament this weekend in Billings.
“Like anything, recruiting is not over. It’s something you do every day,” Petrino said. “We still have a couple of spots identified that we have to keep working on.
“We didn’t win on everybody we offered and that’s OK. We’re fired up about the guys we got here. The kids feel the pulse of the program and the direction it’s going and that’s exciting.”
Rocky started winter conditioning on Jan. 8. The first day of spring practice is scheduled for March 17. The Battlin’ Bears first game of 2018 is Thursday, Aug. 23 at Herb Klindt Field against Carroll College.