Last Saturday, the Loras Football team kicked off its latest season with a 63-10 rout of the University of Northwestern St. Paul. It was a great start to an unusual season.
The last time the Loras College football team took the field was on Nov. 16, 2019. The last time the Duhawks welcomed a roaring crowd to the Rock Bowl was Nov. 9, 2019. Nearly 510 days later, the Duhawks had the opportunity to compete after weathering the challenges of delayed starts, modified practices, and a completely different approach to training throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
The 2019 season saw Loras finish with a record of 5-5 (4-4 A-R-C) and land four players on the American Rivers Conference (A-R-C) All-Conference team. The Duhawks return many experienced student-athletes and have added multiple newcomers, including two new coaches, ready to make an impact during the unconventional 2020 (2021) season.
As it has been with every team returning to competition, the adjustments to training within COVID-19 protocols and shifted schedules has been one of the greatest challenges for the Duhawks. Some of the seniors had already made plans to graduate after the fall semester, meaning they would miss out on their final season, and without a designated preseason camp with no class conflicts, everyone’s schedules felt the shift. The season has been unlike anything head coach Steve Helminiak (’91) has faced in his eight years at Loras or within his entire career, but he has been proud of how his team handled the challenges and ultimately became better teammates and competitors because of it.
“We don’t have that consistency we are used to with a fall season,” Helminiak explained. “In a traditional season, we have a lot of team and individual meetings to help get the team ready physically and mentally to compete. We have a lot of ground to cover and Fall Camp is a crucial aspect to our structure. We didn’t have that this year–our preseason was happening while classes were in session and we had to find times to work in practices, meetings, and workouts. When we are so used to planning in advance, the unknowns are painstaking, but I am immensely proud of how our team and staff managed it.”
At the center of the Duhawks’ offense, senior quarterback Noah Sigwarth (’21) is back for his final season in purple and gold. In 2019, he posted the all-time record for rushing yards for a quarterback with 610, averaging a team-high 60 yards per game and scoring ten touchdowns. He posted a 47 percent completion rate passing last season, throwing eight touchdowns and averaging 194 passing yards per game. He helped lead an offense which averaged 185 rushing yards per game and nearly 200 passing yards in 2019 and totaled 33 touchdowns on the season.
“The confidence we play with on offense starts with our quarterback. He is a three-year start and knows the game inside and out. He makes sure he is prepared for each game and that puts our team in a great place to go out and compete. He is the complete package on and off the field and the leadership we see on the team really starts with him,” Helminiak said.
The Duhawks also have strength and size up front on the offensive line, led by returning starters Drew Blazekovich (‘21) at center and Derrick Olcott (‘22) at guard. Blazekovich is coming back from injury in the 2019 season but has looked sharp throughout the spring and Olcott, though taking on a new role on the line this season, has been consistent for the Duhawks. Sophomore Shawn Coregelas (’23) is also looking to get into the mix at left tackle as well as sophomore Ben Baughman (’23) and freshman Drake Sorenson (’24). Helminiak sees his offensive line’s athleticism and having key players return healthy playing into the growth he’s witnessed throughout the preseason.
Despite graduating three starters at receiver and running back, Sigwarth has a multitude of options within the run and pass games with strength in the backfield in sophomore Ty Bausch (’23) and junior Elijah Thomas (’22). Bausch stepped into a big role his freshman season after Thomas was sidelined due to a season-ending injury in the first game of 2019. Bausch posted 286 rushing yards on 66 carries, averaging 31.78 yards per game, and scored six touchdowns. Thomas is back healthy for the spring and looks to pick up where he left off in 2018, earning A-R-C All-Conference and D3Football.com All-Region nods. In nine games as a freshman, he tallied 1,599 all-purpose yards, 128 punt return yards, 328 receiving yards with four touchdowns as well as 333 rushing yards with three touchdowns. He set the single game and single season kick return records that season, etching himself into the record book early in his career.
Sigwarth will be looking for Kabryn Cook (’22), Hunter Matye (’21) and Mike McDevitt (’21) downfield as key targets for the Duhawks. Cook, a junior, saw time in seven games last season, posting 79 yards including a season-long 45-yard reception in the Duhawks’ final home game on Nov. 9. Both Matye and McDevitt have made the move to tight end for their senior seasons and their experience and athleticism as receivers excite Helminiak for their explosiveness and ability to read the field. Junior Marty McGovern (’22) and freshman Je’Von Williams (’24) have both had strong starts to the spring season and look to get targets this season as well.
The confidence on offense has also translated to the defensive side of the ball as the Duhawks have multiple returners ready to make plays this season. Senior Jack Foley (’21), a three-year starter, had a tremendous 2019 campaign in the secondary, coming away with two interceptions for 72 yards and a touchdown in Loras’ win against Simpson College on Nov. 9 and had four interceptions, five pass breakups, and 22 tackles on the season. His leadership and experience will help youngsters Zaccheaus Knighton (’23) and Jace Gwynn (’23), both of whom have a savvy sense of the game and reading plays, build a strong core group. At safety, juniors Zach Kemp (’22) and Mason Morris (’22) have experience as starters and Brett Bower (’23) had a great freshman campaign, giving the Duhawks’ depth and versatility.
The Duhawks graduated two starting linebackers in Chris Miller (’20) and Walker Even (’21) but bring up three physical players ready to make plays. Juniors Josh Jones (’22) and Joshe Keiffer (’22) as well as senior Brett McWilliams (’21) have been strong players for the Duhawks throughout their careers and will be key contributors to Loras’ defensive set. On the defensive line, the Welborn twins of Michael (’22) and Thomas (’22) look to move into bigger roles as well as seasoned veterans Sam Jones (’21) and Chance Halfhill (’21).
The Duhawks’ special teams unit will rely heavily on senior Nicolas Farfan (’21) and newcomer Zak Talbot (’24). Farfan went 30-31 on extra points in 2019 as well as 4-5 on field goals and accumulating 1,543 punting yards on 44 attempts. He had a career-long 54-yard punt in the Duhawks’ 2019 season-opener against Benedictine University and looks to hold the main duties for the Duhawks for field goals and extra points. Talbot’s consistency on the kick off excites the coaching staff and Helminiak is eager to see how he adds to the special teams efforts throughout the season and his career.