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Column: Bemidji State football's 2010 schedule brings challenge for resilient team

Bemidji State head football coach Jeff Tesch, right, watches extra point practice as Andrew Schultz, left, holds for kicker Jesse Sundby, center, Wednesday at BSU. Pioneer Photo/Eric Stromgren

The Bemidji State football team wraps up the spring practice season today with the annual Green vs. White intrasquad game at Chet Anderson Stadium at 7 p.m.

There's no doubt the Beavers are already looking forward to the fall season and a chance to build on last year's success.

"We're really excited," Bemidji State head coach Jeff Tesch said after Wednesday's practice under sunny skies at BSU. "I think we've got a good team on paper and if the bounces go right we've got the potential to be a really good football team. I'm really confident in saying that because we have more depth, experience and excitement."

Bemidji State will need to carry that excitement into the regular season as the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference scheduling department did not do the Beavers any favors.

BSU will play five of the first seven games of the season on the road in what would be a grueling stretch for any college football team.

Starting at Minot State (Aug. 26) in the season opener, the Beavers will play road games at Southwest Minnesota State (Sept. 18), Minnesota-Duluth (Sept 25), Concordia-St. Paul (Oct. 9) and Minnesota State University, Moorhead (Oct. 16).

The only games at Chet Anderson Stadium during that stretch is the home opener against Mineral Water Bowl runner-up Augustana (Sept. 11) and the homecoming game against Upper Iowa (Oct. 2).

Ouch. That's a lot of time on the bus early on.

It's safe to say the first seven weeks of the season will be a defining stretch for the 2010 Bemidji State football team.

But the flip side of the schedule keeps the Beavers at home for three of the last four weeks against U-Mary (Oct. 23), Northern State (Oct. 30) and the season finale against Minnesota-Crookston (Nov. 13). The only road game there is expected to be a challenge at Husky Stadium against St. Cloud State (Nov. 6).

The schedule looks daunting at the start and that will cause the league's followers to cast doubt Bemidji State's ability to replicate last season's unexpected success.

The Beavers finished last season 8-3 overall and ended tied for third place in the 14-team NSIC with a 7-3 conference record.

BSU had a chance to make the postseason until the NCAA levied a penalty on the team's winning percentage the final day of the season. The penalty resulted from an administrative oversight on transfer rules within the BSU administration that caused the coaching staff to inadvertently use an ineligible player in nine games.

The penalty put a sour end on one of the best seasons in program history - a season defined by resilience.

After a win slipped away in a heartbreaking overtime loss to No. 10 Minnesota State University, Mankato the second week of the season, the Beavers returned home to beat then No. 17 Winona State to start a three-game winning streak.

After losing the homecoming game to St. Cloud State, the Beavers responded by beating then No. 14 Wayne State in the snow and ice at Chet Anderson Stadium.

Even when BSU's improbable rally against then No. 7 Minnesota-Duluth ended with a loss after a missed extra point with no time left in the game - a point that would have sent the game to overtime - the Beavers closed out the season by winning a pair of road games.

That young and inexperienced BSU team succeeded despite a slew of injuries at every position that challenged roster depth week in and week out.

Spring drills are a chance to get back to that resilient mentality. As much as an outsider can call last season a success, the players were disappointed when the season was over because they felt the playoffs were attainable all the way until the end.

Given how the team responded to disappointment between games last fall, there's probably plenty of motivation on the sidelines after sitting on disappointment for the last six months. The motivation will continue over the next four months until two-a-day practices begin in August.

The Beavers will miss linebacker Jake Anderson, who will graduate after he earned all-American recognitions his senior season by leading one of the best defenses in the country.

But most of the key players at key positions will return in 2010: quarterbacks Derek Edholm and Lance Rongstad, wide receiver Andrew Schultz, running back Dustin Kroeplin, defensive end Rob Wills, defensive end Jordan Lardinois, safety Brody Scheff and linebacker Andrew Eagan.

All of that leadership has changed the mentality of spring practice according to Tesch.

"We're so far along right now from where we have been in previous seasons that we've already had our base package in so we've been able to add a few wrinkles to our offense and defense," Tesch said.

There's also been room for competition.

"We've made sure that our returning guys aren't being complacent and we're pushing our starters more," Tesch said. "We're working in some of our younger kids into new roles. We're hoping to have some of them step in and help special teams, some are going to be backups and maybe we'll even find some starters."

The spring game is another chance for coaches to evaluate under game conditions.

It's also a chance for fans to watch potential elite all-NSIC football players battle for pride on the shore of Lake Bemidji.