The Mid-States Football Association continues to become more and more competitive.
It's up to St. Ambrose to keep up.
The Fighting Bees wrapped up an up-and-down season on Saturday with a 20-17 loss to Olivet Nazarene to finish 4-6. It's the first time the Bees posted consecutive losing seasons since 1992, which capped a run of five straight losing seasons.
To avoid a similar run, the Bees have to put in the work this offseason to try to get back to competing for conference championships and playoff berths.
"I think it's a sign of the times a little bit. It's an extremely competitive league, some of the best teams around the country are on your schedule," head coach Mike Magistrelli said. "But I think that's one of the things that makes our situation appealing. You're going to get tested, you're going to play the best. How do we take that next step and be a successful team within this league? It starts with the buy-in during the offseason development."
The Bees did have a tough schedule, having to face the last two national champions and of the team's six losses, only one — a head-scratching 42-37 loss to 3-8 Missouri Baptist — came to a team with a losing record. Despite starting 2-0, the Bees dropped five straight before rallying to win two of their last three.
There were plenty of issues that plagued the Bees during that stretch, at times too many to pinpoint.
"It's hard to say why or what. If I knew the answers to those, we would have fixed it but you look back and for a five-week stretch we struggled to play complimentary football," Magistrelli said. "It takes that type of football to win in this league. You're going to face good quality opponents."
However, there were plenty of positives. Chris Overton embraced a position change to lead the nation in sacks. The offense was perhaps as balanced as its been in years, with Jake Romani throwing for 1,960 yards and 15 touchdowns in his first year as a starter and three running backs all averaging over four yards per carry. Romani returns, as do all three running backs, and there's optimism the offense could take another step next season.
"It's much closer to what we strive for over the years. We always take the approach that we'll play to our strengths," Magistrelli said. "I thought this year coming in we would be more balanced because we had the makeup to run the football better. I think we were a little too reliant in the run game, I think we need to be more efficient in the pass game which will help the run game and for a number of years it had always been the other way."
The Bees lose 20 seniors, including Overton, but as a result of things like injuries and production, St. Ambrose saw plenty of youth take the field. All told this season, 10 sophomores and four freshmen earned starts this season for the Bees, a potential positive if they progress in the right direction.
"You look at a number of those guys and that's a player we can count on," Magistrelli said. "Being freshmen, every experience is a new experience. They've got through the season but to go through an offseason, a spring ball, the summer, these will all be new for them. But if the fall was any indication, we feel like we've got some good pieces there."