The Jackrabbits football team wrapped up its season by claiming their first conference championship since 1963, winning the Great West Football Conference Championship. The season ended with an impressive 7-1 streak, as the Jackrabbits beat the top-ranked North Dakota State University Bison to reclaim the Dakota Marker.
The Jackrabbits were able to turn their season around for the second consecutive year after starting off 0-3, including a 4-0 conference record in their final season of competing in the GWFC. They finished with a 7-4 record.
“There came a point where players asked me to ask the question, ‘Can we play better?'” Head Football Coach John Stiegelmeier said. “And I think if you followed our season, our guys really did work tremendously hard, did get better every week and culminated with a conference championship, a special memory, in front of a record crowd at Coughlin.
“You know, we don’t think about the 0-3,” Stiegelmeier said, “and we don’t think about the game after the fourth game, and so I said it in the press conference, we are the boringest football program in America. I don’t know if boringest is a word. I’m a math major and a football coach so I can use any words I want.”
Senior running back Cory Koenig led the Jacks in rushing; he had 213 carries and rushed for 1,266 yards, scoring 15 touchdowns. Koenig rushed 21 times for 259 yards and four touchdowns against Cal Poly, and then had 30 carries for 162 yards and one touchdown the following week.
Sophomores Jimmy Rogers and Chris Johnson led the defense with 110 and 106 tackles respectively. Rogers also had two interceptions and forced two fumbles on the year. Johnson had one forced fumble and also recovered a fumble for the Jacks.
Ryan Berry came a long way after struggling against Western Illinois in the season opener that went into four overtimes only to see SDSU fall short in a 29-26 loss. Berry completed 197 of his 328 passes for 2,132 yards with 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions. “You watch the movie of the football game and you put it in slow motion,” Stiegelmeier said. “Ideally as a player, it doesn’t really slow down, but you see everything as it happens. I think that happened for Ryan.”
Berry’s favorite target was junior wide receiver JaRon Harris, who caught 40 passes for 664 yards and seven touchdowns. Harris played a big part in the offense before being slowed by an injury.
Eight players were named to the GWFC first team: Parker Douglass, Mitch Erickson, Koenig, Justin Kubesh, Rogers, Danny Batten, Tyler Koch and Brock Gentile.
The Jackrabbits will join the Gateway Conference next season and leave the GWFC behind. The Jacks will join current members Southern Illinois, Illinois State, Indiana State, Missouri State, Northern Iowa, Western Illinois and Youngstown State.
With a lot of hard work, the Jackrabbits have shown that they can compete at the NCAA Division I Football Subdivision Championship level. Stiegelmeier has led the Jackrabbits to a 26-18 record since moving from Division II.
The 2008 season kicks off with the Jacks traveling to Iowa State on Aug. 31.