BUTTE – Here we go again.
The Montana Tech football team’s drive to a third straight Frontier Conference title kicks off Thursday night at the school’s Alumni Coliseum but this trip could easily be the toughest one yet.
The Orediggers won the championship in 2015 after coming off a 1-9 season, leaving some to wonder if some teams took Tech too lightly based on their 2014 performance.
The Orediggers put themselves squarely on the map with their run to the NAIA quarterfinals and lived up to their new-and-improved expectations last season by grabbing their second straight conference crown.
Their road to No. 3 will start off with a potential land mine known as Carroll College.
Tech and Carroll are longtime rivals and each pulls out all of the stops when playing against each other.
Carroll College delivered a staggering blow to Tech in Game 1 of last season by erasing a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit and beating the ‘Diggers on a last-second field goal.
Tech responded by winning the remaining conference games on its schedule, including a 34-15 thumping of Carroll later in the season.
Winning 18 of their last 20 conference games helped raise the bar at Montana Tech but it’s now a bar that many new faces will be trying to reach.
All-everything running back Nolan Saraceni used up his eligibility and in doing so left a large void in the Orediggers’ backfield.
Defensive end Gunnar Kayser, offensive lineman Ryan Stemple, receivers Mitchell Keeton and Kolby Kansala and linebackers Luke Benz and Drew Schleeman have also played their last games for the Orediggers. Schleeman, a hard-hitting defender, was due to come back for his senior season but he was forced to give up football because of injuries.
Each of those players were active in the recent success of Tech’s football program but it’s Saraceni’s former running back spot that will be under the microscope from the Tech brass as well as the Frontier Conference opponents.
“We definitely feel good about who we have back there,” offensive coordinator Pete Sterbick said. “You don’t necessarily have to replace one guy with one guy just to get to that production level. If it takes a couple of guys, that’s the route we’ll go.”
If it’s going to take more than one guy back there, Sterbick feels he has the right people in place.
The Tech coaching staff has been somewhat secretive about what it’s going to do at the running back position but some players started making waves before the team assembled for camp in the spring
Braden Feisthamel, a sophomore out of Savage, got his share of reps toward the end of last season. Feisthamel was Tech’s lead running back in Tech’s two playoff games last season because Saraceni had to sit with a broken leg.
“Feisthamel came on strong last year so we actually found out we had a third running back (after Saraceni and Zach Bunney),” Sterbick said. “Getting those reps helped him a lot. We actually feel that our depth is better.”
Adding to that depth is Jed Fike, who prepped locally (Jefferson and Whitehall high schools) before playing at Dickinson State University last season.
Fike is not new to the Montana Tech’s Bob Green Field, as he and his Blue Hawks teammates played the Orediggers in Butte during the first round of last year’s playoffs. He rushed for 898 yards and 11 touchdowns last season.
“If you’re a good program, you’re going to graduate excellent players every year and you’ve got to find a way to replace them,” Orediggers coach Chuck Morrell said. “I honestly feel like we’ve got some good depth at that position.”
Leading the offensive charge will be senior quarterback Quinn McQueary, who will likely be coming into this season in the best shape of his life.
McQueary helped guide the Tech offense to well over 400 yards per game last season, and 41.5 points per game. Those numbers could conceivably go up given the receivers that McQueary will have at his disposal.
Sean Sullivan, Chris Lachance, Dion Williams and Chris Kelly have proven themselves to be playmakers and are expected to spend the season creating headaches for secondaries throughout the conference.
“I think we’re a little more diversified with what we’re doing on offense,” McQueary said. “We’ve got a lot more passing game in than what we did last year even though we’ve got some great running backs back.
“We’ve got an outstanding receiving corps on the outside that we can make plays with and we’re pretty experienced at the offensive line this year. We only lost one guy from last year, Ryan Stemple, so we’re just filling in one spot and that guy is coming along just fine.”
Morrel knew that they day would come where he’d have to ask some of his up-and-coming players to move into more vital roles. He’ll know soon enough if his recruiting efforts have paid off. He has confidence in what he’s seen so far.
“We have a veteran offensive line,” he said. “We have Quinn McQueary in the backfield. We have a good corps of receivers. We don’t sense that there is going to be as much pressure on the running back position as maybe there has. Nolan has been a big part of carrying us here the last couple of years and I think the rest of the offense has really stepped up so that position doesn’t need to carry as much of the weight.”
Montana Tech defensive coordinator B.J. Campbell has had his hands full as well, trying to replace players like Kayser (seven interceptions, 69 tackles), Benz (31 tackles), Schleeman (53 tackles) and Zach Hulse (48 tackles).
But he used a similar approach as the offense by building depth that he knew would eventually be needed.
One thing that comes in handy for the Tech’s defense is the fact that it gets to practice against Tech’s high-octane offense.
“Coach Sterbick does a good job in giving us multiple looks,” Campbell said. “It gives us a good look for pretty-much any team in the country.
“It’s great to match up against our offense on a day-to-day operation. We get any type of formation, pretty much anything we’re going to have to defend this entire season.”
Tech’s defense held conference opponents to a paltry 18.2 points per game last season, along with 99 yards rushing and 230 passing yards per game.
There is no indication that those figures will let up under Campbell’s watch.
“The great blessing is that we have a number of veteran leaders that were here as part of our 2014 team,” Morrell said. “They were a part of the turnaround that made it into what it is now. I think that memory is still there for them. They don’t want to go back in that direction. It took a lot of energy and effort to get us to the point where we’re at today and they want to see us stay on track.”