MARYVILLE, Mo. — The last time Northwest football faced an opponent was in the quarterfinals of the 2019 NCAA Division II playoffs a year and a half ago.

With no fall season and two scrimmages canceled due to the pandemic, the Bearcats were finally back in action.

Northwest held a joint practice with Sioux Falls Saturday at Bearcat Stadium, and after the long hiatus, it was worth the wait.

“It’s just been a real strange year as I think all of us know,” Northwest offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy said. “So we’ve rolled with the punches, the kids have been resilient, kind of just take what comes our way and deal with it. Getting to do this today was really big, just the fans, kids, coaches, it was just nice to be out here. All of us.”

Physicality was present from start to finish in the two-hour practice, which featured multiple drills for the two squads.

“We kind of anticipated it was going to happen. I mean, these kids haven’t played college football since, you know, December of 2019,” Northwest head coach Rich Wright said. “We knew it was going to be aggressive, and we knew it was going to be physical. So it was just good work by both sides.”

The Bearcats also showcased the changes they’ve made in the offseason as well as roster moves.

On defense, Wright said a big focus is shoring up the back end and creating depth among the front four.

“I was in a meeting yesterday, and there was only one kid with my twos that had ever been on a college football field. So that’s a little bit indicative of what happens when you go a year without playing,” Wright said.

Wright noted senior defensive end Sam Roberts performed at a high level in the practice, after a long-awaited return to full health.

Wright said, “It’s nice to have him finally healthy. I mean, two years ago, he had a midfoot sprain. In 2019, he had a sports hernia. Him healthy is going to be scary for a lot of people in the MIAA. He’s got a lot of experience, a lot of snaps between him and Zach (Howard) up front, it’s a pretty good nucleus to start 2021 on a positive note with where we’re going to be.”

On the offensive side of the ball, they’re dealing with the injury bug, including at the tight end spot normally held down by transfer senior John Rolls and freshmen Wes Merriman and Brayden Ralph.

“We were really banged up and tight end coming into this. Our number one tight end didn’t play and our number three tight end is having hip labrum surgery. So you know, we weren’t full strength there,” Wright said.

Plus, the Bearcats are brand new at the running back position this year after graduating Justin Rankin and Isaiah Strayhorn.

“I thought they competed really hard. I thought they saw things really well. Their vision was good,” Sturdy said. “I thought they did a good job catching balls out of the backfield, too.”

Davonte Green, a junior transfer running back from the College of the Sequoias, is leading the pack.

“I give them the insights of what to do, how to do it and be really strong about it and be dominant. That’s that’s the main focus for us,” Green said.

As far as the receiving corps, Sturdy was impressed with his experienced group, which includes seniors Imoni Donadelle, Alec Tatum and Kaden Davis.

“I’m really pleased with the three seniors. Those kids have done a really good job, they’ve gotten better. Their game’s gotten better in all facets from blocking to releasing to running routes, and actually understanding how to run routes and creating leverage in the passing game,” Sturdy said.

Sturdy added Northwest’s passing game has come a long way since he’s taken over the offense, highlighted by junior quarterback Braden Wright’s improvement in the pocket.

“I’m really pleased with his development as far as his movement, his posture within the pocket, his ability to get through a progression,” Sturdy said. “He threw a ball today, it might have been third down, he hit the fifth guy in the progression. I don’t know if he’s ever got past two, leading into this year. So again, I think his development’s been really good.”

Back in the groove with some reps under their belts, the Bearcats now await their highly anticipated return to competition in the fall.

“Finish up classes, get good grades, lift weights, let’s get ready for fall 2021. We’ll start our our summer lifting and conditioning starting right after the Memorial holiday, and it’s full tilt to 2021 now,” Wright said.

Northwest’s first game of the 2021 season kicks off at Fort Hays State on Thursday, Sept. 2 with a time still to be announced.

Micaela Dea can be reached at micaela.dea@newspressnow.com.

Follow her on Twitter: @NPNowDea

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!

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