MARYVILLE, Missouri — The memory still paints a vivid picture in Zach Pierce’s mind years later.
The Gladbrook, Iowa, native was on his visit to Adam Dorrel-led Northwest Missouri State University as a high school senior. He emerged from Lamkin Hall and made his way to Bearcat Stadium, glimpsing the press box.
Year by year, accolades hang above the stands that are clad in green on Saturday afternoons. From conference championship to playoff appearances, and now six national titles, Pierce remembers that afternoon sealing his fate as a future Bearcat.
“It was mesmerizing, all the history. Every single day at practice, it’s a reminder of the tradition we’re fighting for,” Pierce said. “You just wanna leave your legacy.”
A legacy and tradition is what hangs in the balance the final two weeks of the regular season for No. 12-ranked Northwest (8-1). The home stretch starts with a trip to Hays, Kansas, to battle the 7-2 Fort Hays State Tigers for a 2 p.m. kickoff Saturday.
The Bearcats’ streak of 15 straight playoff appearances will be decided over the next two weeks against the Tigers, No. 10 in the Super Region Three Rankings, before the home finale against the unbeaten Central Missouri Mules, ranked 10th in the nation and No. 2 in the region.
Northwest, clinging to the seventh and final spot in the region, would see its playoff hopes evaporate with two losses. A pair of wins could see home playoff football back inside Bearcat Stadium.
A 1-1 finish would muddy the waters, but the Bearcats know it’s out of their hands now after a 24-17 setback at Nebraska-Kearney three weeks ago.
“If we win our next two games, everything will take care of itself,” third-year head coach Rich Wright said. “The last two weekends we’re gonna play Fort Hays and Central Missouri, so them things will work themselves out once we play.
“We’re just worried about beating Fort Hays, then we’ll worry about the next week after that. We don’t control what happens moving forward, so we’ll just focus on going to Hays, Kansas, and playing our tails off.”
In what’s becoming one of the league’s top rivalries, the Bearcats are playing the underdog role after a pair of one-point losses in the matchup the past two years, both inside Bearcat Stadium.
Fort Hays opened the season with losses at Central Missouri and at home against Missouri Western, No. 8 in the Super Region rankings, before rallying off seven straight wins.
No team has beaten Northwest in three straight regular season games since Pitt State more than 20 years ago when FHSU head coach Chris Brown was a Gorilla All-American safety. The last two years saw 13-12 and 17-16 wins by the Tigers, a prelude to what could be again this week.
The two squads have the top scoring defenses in the MIAA, with Hays holding opponents to under 10 points four times.
“Hays and Northwest is always a physical football game,” Wright said. ”It’s gonna be what it’s gonna be. It’s gonna be a physical game. You’ve got two teams that are fighting for a lot at the end of the season.”
Meanwhile, Northwest averages 48 points per game to the 37 by Hays. FHSU quarterback Chance Fuller is eighth in the nation in passing yards and third with 30 touchdowns. Northwest allows just 44% of passes to be completed.
The Northwest offense has combined for 135 points the last two weeks and soars into Lewis Field Stadium with confidence in Justin Rankin, Braden Wright, Imoni Donadelle and company. But in games that play a role in deciding one’s postseason fate, every snap becomes magnified.
“When you get into big games, the things that are gonna make the difference are who takes care of the ball the best, who plays better on special teams, who limits explosive plays and creates explosive plays on offense,” Wright said. “Oftentimes that’s the difference between winning and losing. Those are all those things that show up in high-stress and high-pressure games.
“You can either be intimidated by it, or you can relish it.”