The first game of the season wasn’t easy for perennial NCAA Division II power Northwest Missouri State.
After battling all night on the road against rival Missouri Southern on Thursday night, the Bearcats scored a pair of touchdowns in the final nine minutes to pull out a hard-fought 45-35 victory. After that, there was a lengthy bus ride that got the Bearcats home sometime after midnight.
But Ryan Spelhaug was right back in class Friday morning.
That’s how you become a first-team academic All-American with a double major in economics and finance.
“I just had a 10 o’clock and an 11 o’clock,’’ said Spelhaug, who helped clear the way for 230 yards rushing in the opening victory. “We had guys who had 8 a.m. classes. We’re all expected to be there.’’
Spelhaug, a former Pleasant Valley athlete, is entering his final season at Northwest Missouri State. He is firmly entrenched as the Bearcats’ starting right guard and is one of the leaders of a team ranked No. 6 in the Division II preseason poll. In fact, he was elected one of the team’s co-captains for this season.
“That was definitely a big honor,’’ he said. “It was all teammate voting so them choosing me as one of those guys, it was definitely a big honor. I’m very proud of that.’’
Spelhaug is part of a family that has enjoyed more than its share of athletic success. Older sister Lexi was a multi-sport athlete who played basketball at Simpson College. Younger sister Ellie was the Quad-City Times female athlete of the year for 2018 and youngest sister Carli was the captain of the Times’ All-Metro softball team last summer. Both Ellie and Carli now play softball at Iowa State.
Ryan said he can’t take much credit for any success his sisters have had.
“They were going to be good no matter what,’’ he said. “Probably the only thing they might have learned from me is I always tried to be the hardest worker. Hopefully, some of that rubbed off on them.’’
That work ethic has served him well in his college football career.
Spelhaug came to Northwest Missouri expecting to play tight end, the position he played for most of the PV career. He stayed there for his entire redshirt year (2015-16) but a few games into the 2016 season, he was moved to the interior line. He began the process of packing 50 additional pounds onto his 6-foot-3 frame and gradually made his way up the depth chart.
“They just told me to eat a lot,’’ Spelhaug said. “I definitely felt a lot different with all that weight. I had to get used to playing at 285 instead of 235. I’d never done that before.’’
He played in just one game in that 2016 season and only five in 2017 before starting all 13 games at right guard last fall, earning third team all-conference honors in the Missouri Intercollegiate Athletic Association in addition to being a first team academic All-American.
He has high hopes for this season despite that close scrape in the opener.
“We have a fairly young team and you don’t really know what a team is going to do Week 1,’’ he said. “We did a really good job of responding and finally finishing the game in the fourth quarter.’’
It didn’t help that the Bearcats lost three starting defensive backs to minor injuries in the contest. But Spelhaug said he’s confident the defense will improve and the Bearcats will live up to a legacy that includes 15 consecutive playoff berths and appearance in the NCAA title game in 10 of the past 21 years.
The Bearcats won the championship in Spelhaug’s freshman and redshirt freshman seasons and he thinks they can do it again.
“This team just has a feel about it,’’ he said. “We’ve got a lot of fight in us. Anything can happen in football, but I think we’re going to definitely make a run at it.’’
After that, Spelhaug will need to figure out what direction he will go with the degree he’ll collect at the end of this semester.
He’s definitely going to buck the family tradition there. His father, Jim, is the former superintendent of the PV district and his mother, Julie, is a math teacher.
“And my sisters are all in education so it’s kind of a new area for me,’’ Spelhaug said. “I think I could be a stockbroker or investment analyst or something like that. Those are things that would be of interest to me.’’