The Red Raiders return to the field in 2014 after finishing tied for second in the Great Plains Athletic Conference last season with an 8-3 record. Northwestern returned to the NAIA playoffs for the second straight season and suffered a 38-13 loss to the Missouri Valley Vikings in the first round. The most notable win of 2013 came when the host team took down the visiting, No. 1 ranked Morningside Mustangs 38-28 in week nine.
Kyle Achterhoff enters his sixth season as the team’s head coach with this year’s team ranked second in the GPAC in both the media and coaches’ polls. The Raiders were also placed in the 13th spot on the NAIA pre-season coaches poll. This year’s team is a culmination of last season’s veterans mixed with some fresh faces to the starting lineup.
“It’s amazing how different every year is,” Achterhoff said. “It’s exciting to see the new guys step up and realize their new roles when the season starts.”
On the offensive side of the ball, the front line is lead by three seniors: Tyler Janota, Brandon Pekelder and Andrew Hulstein. Two sophomores, Levi Letsche and Cody Buskirk, also return to the offensive line.
“With the amount of returners we have, we should be able to establish a good ground game,” Janota said. “Pass protection is something we struggled with last year and we’d like to shore that up this year.”
With the loss of quarterback Davis Bloomendal this past off-season, the Raiders have a few new faces taking snaps including sophomore Braden Miltenburger, sophomore Craig Bruinsma and redshirt freshman Isaac Hurd. Miltenburger saw some playing time as a freshman in 2013 and completed 16-33 passes for 266 yards and four touchdowns in his six game appearances.
Junior Jessie Riley and sophomore Paul Hutson are the two main returners to the backfield from last season. Hutson rushed for 439 yards on 83 carries with three scores last year. Riley racked up 384 yards on 66 carries and two touchdowns for the Raiders in 2013.
The receiving group this season is led by senior Ben Green and junior Levi Ettleman. Green enters his senior season after receiving first-team all-conference honors after collecting 882 total yards on 56 receptions last year. Ettleman returns for his second season as the Raiders’ starting tight end after catching 10 passes for 80 yards last season.
On the defensive side of the ball, NW returns nine of its 11 starters from last season after losing linebackers Isaiah Twitty and Nate Van Ginkel. With most of the starters returning, Achterhoff said he’s looking forward to this defensive group doing some great things for the team this season.
NW returns four key defensive lineman from 2013 including sophomore Sam Van Ginkel, who led the GPAC with 10.5 sacks and received All-American honors at the end of last season. Junior Lawton De Jong also returns to the line after recording 34.5 tackles, including nine sacks and all-conference honors in 2013. Senior Spencer Groeneweg and sophomore Derrick Hurt will both see playing time at the nose guard position this season.
The linebacker position is full of potential and experience as the team heads into the 2014 season. Senior captains Greg Hegstad and Brett Coston will lead the team in the middle of the field and will be accompanied by seniors Josh Treybal, Levi Dykshorn and Mitch Jansen as well as juniors Andrew Powell and Caleb DeHaan.
Rounding out the defensive lineup is senior Jermaine Ambrose, junior Jake Zylstra and junior Justin Wohlert, who all return as starters. Junior Jesse Walnofer and Nathan DeHoyos will also see some playing time and look to make an impact in the defensive back position.
The Raiders have already played one game this season as they opened their season at home against the Bacone Warriors from Oklahoma. Despite leading 27-8 at the half, the Raiders fell 41-33. NW will play its first conference match-up Saturday against the Doane Tigers and look to avenge last season’s 34-27 loss.