MISSOULA — As the Montana Grizzlies get set for their second round playoff game against North Dakota State, each game begins to take on a new meaning for the team, and especially, for the seniors.
It's win or go home for the remaining 16 teams in the FCS playoffs, but for those in their final year, they suit up knowing any game could be their last in college football.
Having that in the back of their mind makes comeback wins like Montana's over Southeast Missouri State this past weekend even more significant.
"So it's the first time I really thought my college football career might be over. I never thought we were going to lose, but when we were down (24-3) in the middle of the third quarter, I was like we got to pick this up or this is going to be my last time ever putting the pads on," senior linebacker Marcus Welnel said. "So just realizing that and then coming back, and doing it, and winning it, and (we've) noticed this week that, 'Hey, if we don't get this done then, it's going to be over,' so brings a sense of urgency for sure."
It's been another impactful senior class for the Griz program, with a slightly different story.
Those who have stuck around this season chose to use their extra year of eligibility after 2020 was canceled due to COVID-19, a challenging break that UM's players used to their advantage in terms of growth.
"It was a really unique opportunity and I didn't question it. I knew I was going to come back and play this last year and with COVID it was different," senior wide receiver Mitch Roberts said. "But I had that opportunity to get stronger and faster and get another opportunity to play with my best friends and play the game that I love."
"You know we joke around about it all the time, doing an extra year of winter (conditioning) and spring ball, that wasn't too much fun, but being here with these guys, now that it's my senior year and it's winding down, I've realized I would do this forever if they would let me," Welnel added. "My body maybe wouldn't love it but it's so much fun being here with these guys and the locker room, games, it's awesome."
Roberts and Welnel were among 15 players celebrated on senior day for the Grizzlies before their game against Eastern Washington. That also included safety Robby Hauck, quarterback Lucas Johnson, linebacker Patrick O'Connell, cornerback Justin Ford, wide receiver and kick returner Malik Flowers, defensive tackle Eli Alford, linebacker Michael Matthews, cornerback Jayden Dawson, defensive end DeAri Todd, left tackle Chris Walker, kickers Nico Ramos and Adam Botkin, while defensive end Alex Hurlburt was also honored since Hurlburt — a sophomore in eligibility — will graduate in the spring and move on to life after football.
These dudes right here 👏👏👏
Thank you seniors for your hard work and dedication. On to the next!#GoGriz // #RTD pic.twitter.com/kac6gQxYUV
— Montana Griz Football (@MontanaGrizFB) November 14, 2022
Players like Roberts and Welnel were beginning to see their playing time increase back in 2019 when Montana returned to the postseason. They've since seen the team make it three straight seasons, as the program has gotten back to playing regularly in the playoffs.
"I think the guys really bought into the culture that the coaches were trying to bring to us," Welnel said. "Just seeing the guys really buy in, I think that was the difference. We ended up winning on the field so when you get some success it breeds more success."
The season isn't done yet for Montana (8-4) as the Griz get ready for Saturday's tilt with the Bison (9-2), but it's another senior class closing out a unique chapter in UM's history, with plenty of memories standing out as this group winds down in their careers.
"There's so many," Roberts said. "I would probably say just the friends that I've made along with players and coaches and there's some really big wins that stick out throughout my career that I think have been really awesome and have meant a lot to me, but I think it just comes down to all of the people that I've met along my college career and played with and had the opportunity to be a part of this journey."