Bears football is dreaming of championships
In the misty dawn of spring football practice, the team organized a final competition, pitting teammates against teammates.
The game? Tug-of-war.
The team itself is separated into three types of players: the skills, the bigs, and the not-so’s (not-so-skilled, not-so-big). Using those categories, a group was randomly assembled. The players waited for the signal before putting their entire body weight against the rope, trying to edge it five yards backward. Their teammates surrounded them on all sides, forming a rowdy tunnel of yelled encouragement.
“It has so much juice,” sophomore Kenneth Hamilton said about the post-practice ritual. “It sets that bar — of ‘If you’re not at my level, you’re gonna lose today.’”
The demonstration of raw strength set the tone of this team: months before the season officially opened, they were loud, high-energy, and hungry for success.
In many ways, last year’s football season felt like a transition year. It was head coach Aaron Keen’s first season coaching for the Bears, and it was the first season back after their 2020 season was canceled due to COVID-19.
But a lot has changed for this team since last season, especially after a 7-4 record last fall. Going forward, Keen has set the tone for his team — he expects it to be competitive with the very top tier of competition in Division III.
“Our whole thing is ‘Keep dreaming of championships,’ right?” Johnathan Smith, a junior defensive lineman, said. “And I think Keen really embodies that. And he believes it; you can see it in his eyes when he’s talking to you: that he believes that this team can go get a national championship.”
Offensively, the Bears are bringing back many key pieces who have gained valuable experience from last year. The offense is led by second-year QB1 Matt Rush, who threw for 2829 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Last season, Rush was the younger quarterback rising through the ranks. Things were moving fast, he said, and he was just trying to stay afloat. His first game was a rivalry matchup against the University of Chicago — there, he felt nervous. But with more experience, he’s learned to be more strategic about the throws that he makes and the plays that he’s executing.
“Our quarterback Matt Rush is as solid as a rock,” Smith said. “I think that he’s more confident, now than ever, in his abilities. He’s obviously got a great arm, and he’s got a great presence about him on the field. And one thing that he’s bringing this year is [that] he’s fully going into that leadership role. He’s ascending into that [role], which is cool to watch.”
The team of receivers — including senior Cole Okmin, junior Collin Hoyhtya and sophomore Collin Goldberg — also gained valuable experience last season. TB Kenvorris Campbell also carries 228 rushing yards from last season and will be looking to make a similar impact offensively.
Rush has been intentional about the chemistry that he’s been building with his receivers, putting in the work in the spring to coordinate timing routes and refine their speed.
“They’re one of the strongest receiving cores that I’ve ever seen. It’s ridiculous,” Kenneth Hamilton said. “It’s just the challenges — we gotta give Rush enough time back there.”
Last season, the team faltered in the line of scrimmage. But with this year’s receivers and the offensive linemen returning, this squad hopes to be more competitive in the tougher matchups. Within the team, the hopes are high, Hamilton said. “With the receivers like this, the offense is going to be ridiculous.”
Last year, the Bears’ defense was senior-heavy and loaded with fifth-years and seniors with an extra year of eligibility. Three out of the first four players with the highest rushing average were seniors, and the senior class was responsible for 75% of the yardage. Similarly, 63.6% of the team’s total tackles were from the former senior class. It’s not only an absence of players in the lineup that could impact the team — this year also represents a big turnover in leadership.
The upside is that there’s a host of underclassmen who are excited to get touches and who are hungry to prove themselves. They’ve put on muscle and worked on speed in the offseason in search of a starting role in the fall. The season will test their flexibility, and Smith said that Keen will likely be moving players around to fill different roles early on.
There are a wide range of players who have been waiting for the opportunity to prove themselves. Senior linebackers Connor Burke, Charlie Monroe and Matthew Schmal have been waiting behind a stacked group of players and will likely support the defense this year. In addition, the rising sophomore class has a host of talent, including Nate Light, Kaden Carnes and Peter Lynch.
“There’s a lot of rotation during practice, and there isn’t [necessarily] a clear idea of […] who’s fully going to be the main guys,” receiver Collin Hoyhtya said. “I think that can be a good thing because, then, everyone’s competing for a role.”
Key matchups that will indicate the strength and ability of this team include North Central and Wheaton, teams that both took trips to the NCAA championships and handed WashU two solid losses last season.
“To beat those teams, like, you’re gonna have to be as committed as possible,” quarterback Matt Rush said. “Just to compete with those teams, you gotta be all in.”
But this is a different team than the squad that faced North Central and Wheaton last year; they have more experience, and they are hungry to keep on building off of last year’s success.
“After coming out this COVID year, we really had the chance to remake our identity as a football team,” Smith said. “And right now, our identity is a high-energy football team that loves to get out there, loves to play — but also [that] knows that you have to be smart on the field. And so that combination of, just, pure enthusiasm and straight skill — that’s going to be deadly.”