Coming off their first winning season since 1999, Rocky Mountain College’s Battlin’ Bears have a few key cleated shoes to fill when they open Saturday at Rocky against No. 7 Dickinson (N.D.) State University.
The key loss is quarterback Kasey Peters, a three-time Frontier Conference Offensive Player of the Year who passed for more than 10,000 yards at Rocky.
Last year, with backup quarterback Mark Desin of Billings Senior High School filling in while Peters sat out the first three games, Rocky narrowly lost the season opener to Dickinson’s Blue Hawks, who are led by the winningest active coach in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, Hank Biesiot, at 251-96-1 (.723).
Things don’t get better the following week at Rocky Bowl, when the defending NAIA champion Carroll College Saints of Helena come into town.
With a home-and-home schedule that includes Carroll, seemingly every Frontier team has the potential of at least a two-loss season.
Last year, Rocky gave the Saints their two closest games until the playoffs, losing by five and three points. Carroll eked out a 10-7 championship win over Sioux Falls last December.
While Carroll’s winning field-goal kicker Tom Yamenko is back, the Saints have some serious gaps with the graduation of three NAIA All-Americans.
Defensive back Thomas Dolan of Billings West was the NAIA’s most valuable defensive player, tight end Bubba Bartlett of Idaho is in pre-season football camp with the NFL’s Houston Texans, and Andy Fjeseth of Dillon won the Rimington Award as outstanding NAIA offensive lineman.
The Saints lost five first-team all-Frontier offensive players (including quarterback Gary Wagner of Havre) and two first-teamers on the defensive side but return two on offense and two on defense.
Coach Mike Van Diest of Carroll is ranked fourth in wins among active coaches and has six national titles.
Rocky’s Brian Armstrong has some key players coming back, notably senior wide receivers A.J. Tolbert of California (892 receiving yards) and Levi Sutton of Billings West (60 catches). Tolbert was a Frontier Conference first-team all-star, as was returning Rocky lineman Dima Vasilevsky.
Anchoring the Rocky defense will be returning second-team Frontier players Thomas Ackerman and Trenton Thelen, both of Billings. Thelen led the team in tackles with 109 and Ackerman had four interceptions.