Havre Daily News sports editor
It may seem to many that the Montana State University-Northern football team has been in a rebuilding mode since the program was reinstated nearly eight years ago.
However, after a 5-5 season and a solo third-place finish in the 2005 Frontier Conference standings, it is clear that the Lights have finally arrived as a team that needs to be dealt with on the NAIA football landscape.
Combine the successes of 2005 with the fact that Northern only loses nine seniors from its roster and you have a recipe for a program that is heading for bigger and better things.
“We just had our final team meetings before the holiday break,” MSU-N head coach Mark Samson said. “And the kids are very excited about getting back here after the break and preparing for next season. All the guys we have coming back are really looking forward to next year and we have a very good core group coming back.”
While Samson knows that the future could be very bright for the Lights in 2006 and beyond, he also knows that 2005 could have been much better as well.
Northern knocked off two nationally ranked teams in Dickinson State University and Eastern Oregon University. Dickinson went on to win the Dak-10 Conference in 2005. The Lights also won on the road for the first time since the program was reinstated when they beat Rocky Mountain College in Billings in late October. The five wins, the road victory and the third-place finish were all milestone achievements for the program.
But Samson can't help think what might have been.
Northern let late leads slip away at UM-Western in September and twice against playoff-bound Montana Tech.
“We had a great season and the kids did very well this year. I definitely think we turned a corner,” Samson said. “But I make no bones about the fact that there were two or three games we should have won.
“When you think about that, you can't help but wonder: If we were the ones who went 7-3, we might have been in the playoffs,” he added. “Maybe we wouldn't have and who really knows, but we definitely could have won a couple of more games this season.”
Wins might not be as hard to come by for Northern next year.
The Lights have fewer holes to fill than ever before. This recruiting season will be more about improving the level of talent in specific areas and replacing starters who are leaving the program than about just trying to fill out the roster.
Northern's biggest losses come at wide receiver and offensive line. The starting trio of Nick Arnold, Danny Wirtzberger and Clint Herrera are all graduating after distinguished careers. The Lights also lose several key offensive linemen.
“In order to improve next year we need to go get some guys that will have an immediate impact on our team,” Samson said. “One of the biggest areas offensively that we need to get better at is wide receiver.
“We had some great guys that we are losing but we just didn't have the big playmakers or speed guys that can break a game open,” he added. “We are looking at bringing in some transfers that hopefully will help us out with that right away. We have to do the same thing on the offensive line.”
Northern was one of the top-rated offensive teams in the Frontier Conference this past season. The Lights finished second in every offensive category next to four-time NAIA national champion Carroll College.
Second-year quarterback Kyle Samson could have easily been considered the league's most outstanding player if he didn't play in the same league as two-time NAIA player of the year Tyler Emmert. Samson was second in the league in passing and third in rushing, and led the league in total offense. Samson hurt his knee in the Lights' season finale against Tech, but should be more than ready to go next August.
Offensively, Mark Samson said that few changes will need to be made, but that the coaching staff can't afford to let up in trying to improve.
“I think for the most part we were a very good offensive team,” Samson said. “Our passing game was pretty good and I really like the running backs that we have.
“But we are going to continue to work hard to get better,” he added. “Spring ball should be a lot of fun because we have a lot of young guys on offense that are going to get a chance to step up and show what they can do.”
If the Lights were a highly improved team on offense in 2005, then they reached the upper stratosphere on defense. Northern's stout defense was second in the league in almost every statistical category, and they led the league in takeaways for much of the season.
The Lights will lose one major component of the defense in Great Falls native Lee Dresch, who was one of the league's top sackers in 2005.
“I think we are really solid on the defensive line and we are really good in the secondary,” Samson said. “I was really pleased with how we played defensively this season. And, if these kids really dedicate themselves in the offseason, I think we can be even better next year.”
Of course, the next big step in the Lights' continuing maturation process is recruiting. While Samson cannot publicly comment on recruits until they have officially signed a letter of intent to play for MSU-N, he did say that he is making good strides in the recruiting department this year.
“We have as many as five quality transfers that hopefully will be coming in to help us out immediately,” he said. “With transfers, you want to only take guys that are going to be impact players, and I think we are going to get a few of those guys.”
Winter conditioning will start after the holiday break and spring practice is just three months away, so it is never too early to start looking ahead at the 2006 Frontier Conference season. And when Samson dares to take a peak into the future, he is highly optimistic about what he sees.
“We'll know a lot more about it when we come out of spring ball,” Samson said. “But with the core of guys we have coming back and all that we accomplished last season, I really think next year could be something special.
“Carroll has some holes to fill but they are still going to be Carroll,” he added. “Tech has some rebuilding to do as well. So if we can work hard and continue to improve, I don't see any reason why we can't set a goal of competing for a conference championship.”
Those are highly optimistic words, but Samson is a highly motivated and optimistic coach. And with what the Lights showed on the field in 2005, and the quality personnel, coaches and players combined, there is no reason to doubt that the Lights will be in the title hunt in 2006.