MARYVILLE, Mo. — Moments after defeating Harding in the opening round of the playoffs, the Northwest Missouri State football team stays put.
Members of the squad remain seated on the south end of Mel Tjeerdsma Field at Bearcat Stadium while others hug their families. Over the next 10 minutes, Northwest would learn its agenda for Thanksgiving week.
The video board operator quickly switches over to a livestream of another Super Region 3 quarterfinal matchup with Lindenwood visiting No. 2-seeded Ouachita Baptist in Arkansas. During that span, the Bearcats watch former MIAA rival Lindenwood kick a go-ahead field goal and haul in a game-winning interception to seal a 41-38 upset.
The win means another full week in Maryville, Missouri, and a second home playoff game for the Bearcats against the final team to earn a bid into the regional.
In the aftermath, head coach Rich Wright and quarterback Braden Wright, of no relation to one another, make their way into the postgame press conference room to meet members of the media.
“Come on, son. Come on over here and sit down,” Rich Wright jokes to his sophomore signal-caller. In Northwest’s last trip to Lindenwood in 2018, the third-year head coach recalled the road team’s broadcast fabricating a story of the two’s relation.
While they aren’t bonded by blood, the Wrights and the rest of the Bearcats will become each other’s family this week as they spend Thanksgiving week secluded in Title Town in preparation for a 1 p.m. kickoff Saturday in the regional semifinals.
“It’s the best week, I believe, of the year,” senior linebacker Andy Hessler states. “There’s really nobody else on campus.
“It’s kinda like the summer — football guys, and football guys only. It’s only football because we don’t have to worry about school — it’s my favorite week of the year,” he adds with a chuckle and smirk.
The home game is Northwest’s first of Thanksgiving week since thumping Emporia State 44-13 in the 2016 playoff opener. Northwest didn’t advance beyond the first round in 2017 and 2018 saw the Bearcats travel to Ferris State and end their season with a loss the week before the family-oriented holiday.
In his 29th year as a head coach and 16th with the Bearcats, Rich Wright is helping guide Northwest this late in the calendar for the 12th time.
While home-field advantage in the playoffs is vital, he says earning it this week gives an even greater edge.
“One of the most difficult weeks of preparation in the playoffs is Thanksgiving week on the road. It’s hard,” Rich Wright said. “That’s not making excuses. Having done it before, it’s not easy to do. To be able to have a home game this weekend is a positive for our kids and our program.”
With classes out of session, Northwest will practice throughout the week without interruption and without the extra planning that goes into roadtrips. Traveling means arranging hotels, buses, and sometimes even flights. Then the team must coordinate to find meeting rooms, even small details including printers for scouting reports and tip sheets, all while planning meals for more than 100 people.
Add in Thanksgiving, when players are granted a chance to travel home for meals with family after practice, the Bearcats have all the luxury of time and familiarity.
“It’s more plug and play as a team, particularly on the week of Thanksgiving when you’re having kids leave on Thursday to go have dinner and stuff like that,” Rich Wright said. “The turnaround to get up early, get on a plane to travel all day, it’s not easy. It’s a definite advantage on Thanksgiving.
“I plug in and I go Groundhog Day. I know where I’m gonna be all week. I know we’re going to dinner Friday night at A&G.”
Familiarity comes in the weekly pasta buffet at the popular dining establishment. It also comes in traditions the Bearcats have grown up with around the holiday, from copious amounts of food to backyard football games.
“When you grow up as a football player, some of your best memories are of Thanksgiving and your family, and what ties into that? Watching football. It makes me feel like a little kid when I get to go out on Thursday morning Thanksgiving day and go practice,” Rich Wright said.
“It means if you’re practicing on Thanksgiving, you’ve had a pretty darn good season and are playing for something.”