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Morningside picked to win GPAC title

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SIOUX CITY, Iowa — Morningside was oh-so-close to winning a national championship last fall.

The Mustangs scored a go-ahead touchdown with 1:04 remaining in the NAIA title game in Rome, Ga., on Dec. 13. However, eventual champ Marian (Ind.) responded with a tying field goal as time expired in regulation, then won with another field goal in a 30-27 overtime thriller.

The memory of the defeat now serves as motivation for Morningside, coach Steve Ryan said.

“You don’t just wake up the next morning and forget about what happened in that game,” he said. “We don’t talk about it a whole lot. Who we are as a program and the values that we base our program on, those things don’t change year in and year out. The guys hear the same message.

“But in regards to that, we feel we’ve had an excellent offseason. And I do think that’s in the back of their minds. This didn’t end the way we wanted it to end. We need to get after it again.”

The Mustangs, who have qualified for the NAIA playoffs for nine straight years, were deemed the preseason favorites in the Great Plains Athletic Conference by coaches Thursday at the league’s annual media day. They were also the top choice by the media members in attendance.

Last year’s runner-up Northwestern was picked second in both polls, followed by Doane and Nebraska Wesleyan. Hastings and Dakota Wesleyan were flipped in the fifth and sixth spots in the preseason projections. Concordia, Midland, Briar Cliff and Dordt rounded out both polls.

Morningside returns nine starters on offense from last year’s 13-1 team, but it must replace eight from a defense that led the NAIA by allowing only 13.2 points per game.

Northwestern, a playoff qualifier in 2012, has a favorable home schedule and should provide the biggest threat to the Mustangs. The Red Raiders, who return quarterback Davis Bloemendaal and other playmakers on offense, face four of the top six finishers in the GPAC last year, including Morningside, in Orange City this fall.

“Do we feel like this could be a special year?” Northwestern coach Kyle Achterhoff said. “I think anytime you go into a season with a three-time returning starter at quarterback, who is now a senior, you think you’ve got a shot. And that’s what we want at this point.”

Morningside has won the last two GPAC titles since former NAIA power Sioux Falls moved to the NCAA Division II level. One of those two teams has won the outright league championship every year since 2001, when USF split the crown with Concordia.

In the GPAC’s inaugural season in 2000, Nebraska Wesleyan and Northwestern tied for the title. Morningside, which formerly competed in D-II, didn’t join the league until 2003.

GPAC Notes: Concordia’s players and staff are mourning the death of former teammate and student assistant coach Derek “Rowdy” Rodine. The four-year starting defensive tackle, who played for the Bulldogs from 2008 to 2011, was killed in a car accident Saturday. ... Doane coach Matt Franzen was not in attendance after the birth of his second daughter this week. Assistant Chris Bessler represented the Tigers at media day. ... Briar Cliff will play its five home games at the University of South Dakota’s DakotaDome in Vermillion, S.D., this fall. The Chargers were host to Hastings for a game there last season. The dome is a 40-minute drive from the Briar Cliff campus.

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