MARYVILLE, Mo. — After suffering a season-ending injury last year, linebacker Andy Hessler had to watch from the sidelines as the Bearcats traveled to face Ferris State for the first time since the 2016 semifinals.

“I did not actually go, I was hurt earlier in the season,” Hessler said. “But watching it on film and just hearing from the guys is they’re a big physical football team and they moved us, and they dominated the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.”

In their first meeting ever, Northwest notched a 35-20 win over the Bulldogs in Maryville, as the Bearcats eventually became back-to-back champions in 2016.

Two years later, the Bulldogs responded with a 27-21 victory over Northwest in the 2018 second round of playoffs in Big Rapids, Michigan.

“We’re excited for the opportunity to play Ferris again. We don’t think we’ve played our best game last year, and hopefully we can play a better game this year,” Hessler said.

Now as the Bearcats prepare for their third all-time meeting against Ferris State, head coach Rich Wright believes advancing even further in the playoffs would be purposeful for a certain group of players, including Hessler.

“For the first time really in their careers, this would be on their backs because for most of our kids, they were redshirt freshmen the last time we were able to get to the Final Four,” Wright said. “So, it just means a little bit more when you’re in it.”

A junior from Hartland, Wisconsin, Hessler added this year’s squad understands the significance of the upperclassmen leading the charge past the third round of playoffs.

“I was a redshirt freshman last time we made it there. I was the long snapper. That was my only job,” Hessler said. “They want it to be on our backs and us carry the load, so I mean there’s just that want to get our class there.”

Despite missing the final 11 games in 2018, the junior was picked to lead as one of six captains for the Bearcats this season.

Standing at 6-feet and weighing 225 pounds, Hessler started all 11 games this regular season and ranks sixth on the team with 29 solo tackles out of a total of 42.

Wright added the caliber that every member of the team is held to helps promote a certain level of success year in and year out.

“Do not come here if you do not want to be elite, because that’s the standard you’re going to be held to, not just on the football field but in the classroom, the community. We want people who strive for excellence in everything that they do,” Wright said.

Notching an all-MIAA honorable mention award this season, Hessler also nabbed 5.5 TFLs and three quarterback sacks.

Now as Hessler prepares for a team he has not yet faced in his career, he said it all comes down to the hard work put in behind the scenes.

“It’s just all in your film study and preparation. It goes back to little details, finding things that you can find on film that you can use to your advantage and then just being ready to play a physical football game,” Hessler said.

Ahead of the Bearcats’ moment of truth, Hessler said last year’s loss has been the catalyst for the him to push the team to not only win the Super Region 3 title, but also make it all the way this time around.

“There’s that chip on your shoulder that you want to go play well and show what you can do, but there’s also that (motivation to) get to the round of four because then you’re one of the best four teams in the country,” Hessler said.

Kickoff between the Bearcats and Bulldogs is set for noon CST in Big Rapids, Michigan.

Micaela Dea can be reached

at micaela.dea@newspressnow.com.

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Micaela Dea is a sports reporter for News-Press NOW. She graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Growing up in San Diego, Micaela loves to travel, meet new people, and tell stories. Have a story idea? Don't hesitate to email!