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Frontier Preview: Wild Frontier season about to unfold

Tech and Carroll favored, but the league is loaded

The 2012 Frontier Conference season will forever be remembered as the year the league got turned upside down.

After all, Carroll College lost an improbable three games in 2012, while Montana Tech went from seventh in 2011 to a tie for first. And then there’s Southern Oregon, which reeled off a two-month long winning streak and laid claim to the league title in its first season in the conference.

Yes, the 2012 season was a wild one to put it mildly. And while a repeat of 2012 isn’t likely, the 2013 season, which begins Thursday night when the MSU-Northern Lights travel to Dickinson State, won’t be any less thrilling.

“It’s going to be very interesting to see how it all unfolds,” Northern head coach Mark Samson said. “There’s a lot of very good football teams in this conference. I think the depth in this league is outstanding right now.

“And it’s a really interesting thing, you have some teams who return some really talented players,” he added. “But those same teams also have some key holes to fill at some pretty important positions. So it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens.”

Montana Tech and Carroll were picked by the league’s coaches to share the Frontier title this season, but going down the list, there might not be much of a drop-off from first to sixth or seventh. While the Orediggers and Saints might be the deepest teams in the league, SOU still has Austin Dodge at quarterback, and Rocky Mountain College and Northern both have veteran and explosive offenses, which make them dangerous opponents every week. Eastern Oregon and UM-Western are probably the biggest unknowns right now, as both teams have talent, but have question marks at key positions, while DSU will be a young and inexperienced group from top to bottom.

The schedule also makes the race to the Frontier crown and the NAIA playoffs interesting. Once again, the league is divided into two divisions, with teams playing division opponents both home and away, and cross-division games happening just once for each squad. The schedule will create some interesting scenarios as the season goes on.

And lastly, it’s yet another transition year for the Frontier. The Blue Hawks are on their way out as they join the newly formed North Star Athletic Conference in 2014, while the Frontier will add the College of Idaho next season.

There are many interesting things about the Frontier. While more won’t be known until well into September, one thing is certain, there’s no shortage of excitement surrounding this fall, and the Frontier as a whole.

Here’s a team-by-team look at the Frontier in its predicted order of finish according to the Frontier Conference Preseason Coaches Poll.

Montana Tech Orediggers

2012: 8-3 overall, 8-2 in the Frontier, Co-Champions. Lost in NAIA 1st round.

Head Coach: Chuck Morrell (3rd Season)

Stadium: Alumni Coliseum

Five Key Players: Pat Hansen, RB (5-9, 180, Jr.); James Roberts, WR (6-5, 205); Mike Touzinsky, LB, (6-2, 215); Jacob Workman, DE (6-0, 240); Mike Waldman, DE (6-3, 215).

Big Games: Home vs SOU Nov. 16/Road at Carroll Sept. 14

Outlook: The Orediggers are a popular pick to repeat as Frontier champions. And why not. Tech had a great 2012 season, and the Diggers’ return weapons like running back Pat Hansen (2,000-plus yards in two seasons), a trio of wide receivers, a huge offensive line, a star linebacker in Mike Touzinsky and a stout defensive front. The Diggers’ finished near the top of the league in both offense and defense a year ago, and were stellar in the kicking games, which led to a perfect storm of a season and their first playoff appearance in six years. But not all is perfect in 2013. Despite unveiling a beautiful new Bob Green Field this fall, Tech will have to replace starting quarterback Nick Baker with former starter Brian Schwartzkoph, who was never as efficient at running the Diggers’ up-tempo offense. And they also have to revamp a secondary which saw a pair of All-Conference standouts, and three starters depart last year. Still, with a monster recruiting class last spring, momentum built from a magical 2012 campaign, major facility upgrades, and loads of talent on both sides of the ball, the Diggers’ certainly have every opportunity to hold onto the Frontier title they grabbed a year ago.

Carroll College Saints

2012: 7-4 overall, 7-3 in the Frontier, 3rd Place.

Head Coach: Mike Van Diest (13th Season)

Stadium: Nelson Stadium

Five Key Players: Dakota Stonehouse, QB (6-1, 195); Dustin Rinker, RB (5-9, 200); Levi Coughlin, OL (6-6, 300); Sean Blomquist, LB (5-11, 225); Dakota Amy, DT (6-3, 265).

Big Games: Home vs Tech, Sept. 14/Road at MSU-N Oct. 26

Outlook: The Fighting Saints will play the 2013 season with a torrid chip on their shoulder. Why? Because 2012 was disastrous by Carroll standards. The Saints’ Frontier championship streak and playoff run was shattered by road losses at Montana Tech and SOU, as well as a stunning defeat at the hands of RMC. But Carroll has the weapons to prove 2012 was nothing more than a freak occurrence. Quarterback Dakota Stonehouse finished in the Top 10 in rushing a season ago, and as a senior, should be a more polished passer. Carroll has athletic wide receivers, a monster offensive line, and a full-time star in junior tailback Dustin Rinker, who spent the last two seasons rushing for nearly 2,000 yards backing up the great Chance Demarias. Then there’s the vaunted Carroll defense, which returns seven starters from a team which gave up a Frontier best 19 points per game last season. Tackle Dakota Amy and linebacker Sean Blomquist are stars, but overall, Carroll’s front seven will be the best in the league, and if gaps come together in the secondary, the Saints will have a top-rated defense yet again. And with a home schedule which includes Tech, SOU, Northern and Rocky, the Saints could ascend right back to the Frontier throne they owned for so long.

Southern Oregon Red Raiders

2012: 9-3 overall, 8-2 in the Frontier, Co-Champions. Lost in NAIA Quarterfinals

Head Coach: Craig Howard (3rd Season)

Stadium: Raider Stadium

Five Key Players: Austin Dodge, QB (6-3, 210); Clay Sierra, TE (6-6, 250); Zach Marshall, RB (5-9, 175); Drew Gibson, OL (6-6, 260); Josh Leff, DB (5-9, 190).

Big Games: Home vs Tech Oct. 5/Road at Carroll Nov. 2

Outlook: No team had a bigger impact on the NAIA as a whole in 2012 than Southern Oregon. In its first Frontier season, the Red Raiders earned a share of the league title by ripping off five straight wins to end the regular season. Quarterback Austin Dodge demolished many Frontier single-season passing records in an SOU offense which averaged over 50 points and 500 total yards per game. And with Dodge back at the helm for his junior season, SOU remains a top pick in the league. However, head coach Craig Howard lost six starters on offense, including a 1,000-yard running back and three wide receivers who all gained over 1,000 yards a year ago. The SOU defense also took a big hit, as the Red Raiders will have as many as seven new starters this fall. So there’s certainly question marks surrounding a possible repeat this season, including the fact SOU’s one game with Carroll will be in Helena this season, and SOU will probably have to also win in Butte in order to have a shot at repeating. Still, with Dodge running the show at quarterback, the Red Raiders will definitely be in the hunt from start to finish.

Rocky Mountain College Battlin’ Bears

2012: 6-5 overall, 5-5 in the Frontier, 4th Place.

Head Coach: Brian Armstrong (6th Season)

Stadium: Herb Klindt Field

Five Key Players: Bryce Baker, QB (6-3, 215); Andre McCullouch, WR (6-1, 195); Josh Johnson, LB (6-5, 285); Travis Bertelsen, LB (5-11, 210); Corey Brummer, DB (6-0, 205).

Big Games: Home vs Carroll Sept. 21/Road at Tech Sept. 28

Outlook: Since Brian Armstrong took over at RMC, the Battlin’ Bears have been on the verge. Back-to-back .500 seasons in the Frontier, a huge win over Carroll in 2012 and a consistent defense have gotten the Bears closer to reaching the top half of the league. And with a high-octane win over Jamestown College last Friday night in Miles City, Rocky has already announced its presence in 2013. RMC has a veteran QB in Bryce Baker to lead the offense, and he has a host of good wideouts to throw to. The Bears may have one of the strongest offensive lines, while the trio of linebackers in Josh Johnson, Travis Bertelsen and Jacob Barit may be the best in the league. RMC is strong up front, and if the Bears can find playmakers to emerge in the secondary, there’s no reason to think they won’t keep pushing the Frontier envelope this fall.

MSU-Northern Lights

2012: 3-7 overall, 3-7 in the Frontier, 7th Place

Head Coach: Mark Samson (10th Season)

Stadium: Blue Pony Stadium

Five Key Players: Derek Lear, QB (5-11, 190); Orin Johnson, WR (6-0, 200); Lavorick Williams, WR (6-2, 195); Jordan Van Voast , LB (6-1, 210); Josh Baum, DB (6-1, 205).

Big Games: Home vs Tech Nov. 2/Road at SOU Oct. 19

Outlook: Things seem to be pretty simple for the Lights this season. If Northern’s offense is on, it will be difficult to stop. If the Lights take care of the ball and play sound defense, they’re a shoe-in to improve upon last year’s difficult 3-7 season. Four-year starter Derek Lear will be the catalyst, and though Northern must replace its all-time leading rusher in Stephen Silva, the running game should be good with Zach McKinley, Jai Johnson and a huge o-line. Plus, veteran wideout Orin Johnson leads a talented and speedy group. Defensively, MSU-N is rebuilding around a talented and experienced secondary. And if the Lights keep coming together on that side of the ball, and their offense shows it can produce week-in-and-week-out, the Lights would be the top pick to be the surprise team in the Frontier.

Eastern Oregon Mounties

2012: 4-6 overall, 4-6 in the Frontier, 5th Place

Head Coach: Tim Camp (4th Season)

Stadium: Community Stadium

Five Key Players: Chris McGinnis-Parker, RB (5-7, 285); Kedrick Starr, WR/RS (5-10, 175); Jace Billingsley, WR (5-9, 185); Ryan Watson, LB (6-0, 220); Nick Magrone (5-10, 185).

Big Games: Home vs Carroll Sept. 28/Road at Portland St. Aug. 29

Outlook: Just two years removed from the best season in school history, EOU has slipped to the second tier of the Frontier. Graduation has hit EOU hard the last two seasons, and 2013 looks to be another rebuilding year in LaGrande. EOU does have playmakers on offense including running back Chris McGinnis-Parker, as well as the speedy Ked Starr and Jace Billingsley. But quarterback was a major the Mounties a season ago, and while both starters return, a new offensive line, and a green defense could hold the Mounties back this season.

UM-Western Bulldogs

2012: 4-6 overall, 4-6 in the Frontier, 5th Place

Head Coach: B.J. Robertson (1st Season)

Stadium: Vigilante Field

Five Key Players: Rashad Peniston, WR (5-11, 185); Dylan Kramer, RB (5-9, 185); Tyrell Braun, RB (5-11, 183); Kasey Griffith, LB (5-9, 206); Will Fields, LB (5-8, 196).

Big Games: Home vs MSU-N Sept. 28/Road at Tech Nov. 9

Outlook: In recent years, the Bulldogs have been looked upon as a team on the rise in the Frontier. But the fact remains, Western has had just two winning seasons in the last 20. And 2013 could end up being another long one. B.J. Robertson returns to Dillon to take over for Ryan Nourse, who recently became the UM-W Athletic Director. And while Robertson inherits a pretty strong Western defense, which includes star linebackers Kasey Griffith and Will Fields, as well as defensive end Phil Selin, the Bulldogs have major hole to fill on offense. In particular, Western needs a quarterback as the often-injured Jeff Logan graduated and Kenny Bradley didn’t return to school. UM-W also has a young offensive line, but the Bulldogs do have a stable of good running backs and one of the best receivers in the Frontier in senior Rashad Peniston. Never-the-less, if Western can’t defend its home field this season, and can’t find a stable QB to compliment a more run-oriented offense, another sub .500 season could be in the cards in Dillon.

Dickinson State Blue Hawks

2012: 2-9 overall, 1-9 in the Frontier, 8th Place

Head Coach: Hank Biesiot (38th Season)

Stadium: Henry Biesiot Activities Center

Five Key Players: Myren Moore, RB (5-9, 190); Kyle Stanton, RB (6-2, 230); Cord Berg, DE (6-2, 230); Kyle Watson, LB (6-1, 210); Robert Nalawaja, DB (5-10, 160).

Big Games: Home vs MSU-N Aug. 29/Road at RMC Sept. 7

Outlook: The Blue Hawks had a rough first season in the Frontier, and their last season (DSU will join the North Star Conference in 2014) doesn’t look to be much better. DSU is trying out six different quarterbacks for the starting job, while the offense lost almost every starter from a year ago, and that from an offense that was last in the league in total offense and scoring. The offensive outlook is more of the same, as not only does DSU not have a true starter at QB, but the rest of the unit is young as well. Defensively, DSU was stingy at times last season, and the Hawks do return a handful of talented starters on that side of the ball. Still, in Hank Biesiot’s legendary 38th season at the helm, a lot won’t be expected out of DSU in its second and final season in the Frontier.


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