HARRISONBURG, Va. — The Montana Grizzlies are on the doorstep of the FCS semifinals, but that’s not how it was a few years ago.
But after Bobby Hauck returned as head coach for his second stint in December of 2017, the feeling around the program changed. It’s the second straight quarterfinal run for Montana, with the groundwork for success laid out by this year’s senior class to get Montana back to its playoff ways after the Grizzlies missed the playoffs from 2016-2018.
“I feel like once coach Hauck got here it was definitely a different feel to the program," linebacker Jace Lewis said. "I mean you’re accountable for classes, lifting, if you’re not 20 minutes early you’re doing something wrong so I mean it was definitely a different feel but it was good and it’s gotten us to this point and I think coach Hauck really did a great job of instilling that work ethic in all of us.”
Including Lewis, this Griz senior class has four players who joined the program way back in 2016 along with wide receiver Samuel Akem, long snapper Matthew O'Donoghue and left tackle Conlan Beaver, while a fifth, wide receiver Danny Burton, joined after the 2016 season. Since, more transfers have joined along the way to create this impactful class.
"It means a lot to us because we came here to win and be part of something special," Akem said. "You could feel that when Hauck first stepped in the room for that first team meeting and everybody just sat up in their seats, everybody is looking, listening, and you could just feel a different aura and it just feels awesome to be a part of it and see the growth."
In total, Montana has 14 seniors listed on its roster as guys have joined the program over the years. When Hauck was hired, he brought in a number of players in 2018 who have grown into starring roles including right tackle Dylan Cook, quarterback Cam Humphrey, and safety Gavin Robertson. The 2019 season saw more guys come in and make an impact including right guard Moses Mallory, defensive end Joe Babros and offensive guard Kordell Pillans. Cornerback Omar Hicks Onu joined the team in January of 2020 while Justin Belknap came to UM in the summer of 2020, and kicker Kevin Macias rounds out the bunch after joining the team just after fall camp started.
After UM made the postseason in 2019, this group had to wait an extra year for their senior seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
But through the waiting, they set the tone again as Montana has returned to the playoffs and has had a season with plenty of highs, and remains as one of the final eight teams in the FCS. They'll take on James Madison on the road on Friday night in the quarterfinal round.
“The expectation level has grown," Hauck said. "They’re not hoping that we win. They know we’re going to win. They know the mechanism for it and how we do it and that leads to us being a hard team to beat.”
For underclassmen on the team, they've seen the impact this class and those before them have had first-hand and want to continue that run.
"For me, especially this year, the connection that me and Jace and all of the linebackers, for that matter, have built has been pretty special," linebacker Patrick O'Connell said. "All of the other seniors on defense, they've bought into everything that the coaches have asked them and that's why they're out there making plays and helping our team win football games so they've been pretty special to the Grizzly program I'd say."
"The leadership that our seniors have shown throughout the year and through their four of five years," wide receiver Mitch Roberts added. "Going through winter conditioning, summer, and then just buying into everything. It's been something that I've looked up to and it's been pretty awesome just watching how far our senior class has come and how much they've done to help us as underclassmen as well."
For the seniors, seeing that work pay off for the program means the world.
“It feels awesome," Akem said. "I’m just so excited to see where this program goes after I’m done here but I’m just excited where we are right now it’s just awesome to see the growth and know where we came from. 2016, 2017, getting beat by the Cats, not winning too much, now to win and to be in the conversation and to be one of the top teams in the country, it feels really good.”
"It's huge and then out on Saturdays seeing people succeed and scoring touchdowns and making big plays," Lewis added. "Everybody is excited. As you see on Saturday's everybody is partying on their head, getting excited, pumping the crowd up. It's awesome to see and the hard work pays off in the end.
“It’s been awesome. I wouldn’t want it any other way and they’re some of my closest friends I’ve made this far in life so I wouldn’t want it any other way.”