Northwest Missouri didn’t experience any anticipated growing pains this season.
“The outside perspective was it was going to be a rebuilding year,” said junior forward Tyler Dougherty, a Papillion-La Vista graduate who has been with the Bearcats since 2016. “But I think it speaks to the maturity of the guys on the team. They may not have much experience, but we were able to pick up where we left off last year.”
Northwest lost four starters off last year’s 27-4 team, but the Bearcats have been as dominant as ever this season, taking a 35-0 record into the NCAA Division II men’s basketball Elite Eight. Northwest looks to reach the semifinals when it faces Mercyhurst on Wednesday at 2:30 p.m. in Evansville, Indiana.
Northwest starters include three underclassmen — freshmen Diego Bernard and Trevor Hudgins as well as sophomore Ryan Hawkins.
Hawkins, a 6-7 forward from Atlantic, Iowa, said he has worked on his perimeter game this season. That has shown as after averaging 5.4 points off the bench as a freshman, he’s third on the team in scoring, averaging 14.1 points. He also leads the team in rebounding at 8.7 a game — he has a team-best 10 double-doubles — had an MIAA-best 76 steals, has hit 77 3-pointers and is shooting 92.6 percent from the foul line.
All five Northwest starters average more than eight points a game and all have hit at least 40 3s.
“It’s been tough for teams to scout us,” Hawkins said. “I feel like we have a little more energy than we’ve had in the past because these guys are hungry and haven’t done this before.”
There may be new faces, but success is very familiar to the Bearcats. Under 10th-year coach Ben McCollum, Northwest has averaged nearly 24 wins a year and has gone 97-5 the past three seasons. The Bearcats won their first national title in 2017.
“I think the culture is set in,” Dougherty said. “We know what’s expected of us and how things go.”
Dougherty’s brother, Brett, was a starter on the national title team and they would practice against each other every day. Tyler said it’s different not having Brett, who now is in graduate school at UNMC, around, but he added that “we still talk all the time.”
Northwest enters the Elite Eight with some gaudy numbers. It leads Division II in scoring margin at plus-21.5 — 30 of its 35 wins have been by double digits. It’s also second nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.83), third in scoring defense (62.4) and fourth in 3-pointers made (385).
“There’s a bunch of guys who can do the job, a lot of guys who can score,” Dougherty said.
In other Midlands notes:
» Hastings women’s soccer coach Chris Clements has resigned to become coach at Minot State, an NCAA Division II program in North Dakota. Hastings qualified for the NAIA national tournament in all five seasons with Clements as coach. He had an 81-17-10 record with the Broncos, including a program-best 17-1-3 mark last fall.
» Central Community College Athletic Director Jack Gutierrez is retiring, effective May 31. Gutierrez has been with the college for 39 years, becoming athletic director in 1992. He was the men’s basketball coach, winning 418 games, and is the softball coach. Mary Young, the school’s volleyball coach, will serve as the interim A.D.
» Concordia’s softball team, which started the season 1-3, is on a 10-game win streak entering its GPAC opener Wednesday at Doane. Tori Homolka, a Wilber-Clatonia graduate, is leading Concordia’s surge as over the past five games she’s 12 of 18 with nine runs scored, eight RBIs and three steals.