GREAT FALLS — We are hurtling toward a fall sports season that will look very similar to ones pre-COVID. It, of course, will be headlined by a full 10-game football schedule after the Frontier Conference elected to have a four-game slate with just five teams in the spring.
On Tuesday, in its normal location at its normal time, the league hosted its first in-person media day in two years.
“I think I’m going to use the Monday Night Football slogan. Are you ready for some football? We certainly are,” Frontier Commissioner Kent Paulson said. “Just the idea of getting everybody back, getting spectators in the stands. Today, officially, the new normal, as I’m calling it, begins. The Frontier Conference is very proud of these [coaches] and the student-athletes they bring in each year. I know we’re going to be treated to another wonderful football season.”
Eastern Oregon topped the preseason coaches poll, earning three of the eight first-place votes. College of Idaho and Montana Western tied for second and Carroll slotted in at No. 4. Southern Oregon, Montana Tech (two first-place votes), Rocky Mountain College and Montana State-Northern rounded out the back half of the poll.
“A full season,” Mountaineer head coach Tim Camp said. “You can’t tell anything in four games, but you can once you get into fall camp. The kids, they excite me. They believed in the process a long time ago. That doesn’t equal wins, I know that, but those would be the things I’m super excited about.”
Camp has two very big reasons to be excited about the fall personnel-wise. Redshirt seniors Kai Quinn and Chase Van Wyck decided to complete a sixth year at Eastern Oregon and return for the fall. Quinn was the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year after completing over 63 percent of his passes for 811 yards and eight touchdowns during the spring.
Van Wyck was second on the team with 25 tackles from his defensive line position, good enough to earn him league Defensive Player of the Year honors.
“They love football and they love Eastern Oregon, that’s it...We needed another year,” Camp said. “We didn’t finish what we started. That’s basically what they always tell me...We have some unfinished business. We may not win a game, but we’re gonna go out there and try because we love the game of football.”
Eastern Oregon tied atop the Frontier with Carroll and College of Idaho after four spring contests, giving the Mountaineers at least a share of a conference title for the first time since 1980 and just the fourth time since 1955.
College of Idaho has now claimed at least a piece of the league title for two-straight seasons and plans to open camp with an on-going quarterback battle.
Carroll returns all but three starters, and despite earning the conference’s automatic bid to the NAIA Football Championship Series in the spring, was picked to be a middle-of-the-pack team in the preseason poll.
Both Montana Western and Montana Tech received first-place votes after opting out of the shortened spring 2021 season. The Bulldogs finished at 7-3 in 2019 with the Orediggers a game behind at 6-4. Western returns the bulk of their starters, including quarterback Jon Jund who threw for over 2,700 yards and 31 touchdowns two years ago.
Nate Simkins is also back as a redshirt senior after catching 55 passes for 830 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2019.
The Orediggers are getting back 14 total starters, including nine on the offensive side of the football. Head coach Kyle Samson has yet to coach a game in his current position after being elevated from offensive coordinator in January of 2020.
“You never thought you’d go a year without coaching a game,” Samson said. “It’s given us an opportunity to really try to build our culture and build the program the way we want as a staff. Really trying to focus on getting a little bit better every single day to get ready for this first game on Aug. 28. It’s been a long time and we’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re really excited about the opportunity.”
Quarterback Jet Campbell, running back Blake Counts and wide receiver Trevor Hoffman are all back for Tech and the program added Austin Ybarra (linebackers coach) and Blake Thelen (quarterback) from Montana State during the off-season.
“Just very excited to be here and [to be] getting back to normal,” Samson said. “Just getting ready for the season. Excited to get with all our guys and the coaching staff for the opening of fall camp. What a great event here today and really cool to be able to do it in-person with so many things that haven’t been in-person this last year. Just really gets you excited for the fall.”
Rocky Mountain is getting 16 seniors from the spring back, according to head coach Chris Stutzriem. Drew Korf is gone after leading the conference’s best passing attack, statistically speaking, in the spring. His absence, and the injury to Nate Dick during the spring, means Rocky will be looking at three or four different options at quarterback.
After losing three games by a combined 12 points earlier this year and playing all four games to within one possession, the Battlin’ Bears’ off-season focus has been on finding a way to “get over the hump” and translate more of those close losses into victories.
“I am seeing the growth of our team,” Stutzriem said. “We got blown out three or four games in a row in 2019 by 35 or 40 points, and to see the difference in that with our games, has always been huge. That’s a positive thing, but at the end of the day we gotta win football games. I’ve gotta do a better job as the head football coach and we’ve gotta win games. Love our team, love how they battled, but now we gotta get over that last hump.”
Eight teams in eight different situations will all be playing for the same goal this fall: win a conference championship. Five programs competed in the spring, and three did not, adding further intrigue to an already intriguing season.
The first Frontier games of the 2021 fall season kick-off on Aug. 28.