Cheerleaders, coaches, players and Bobby Bearcat himself rolled into Hy-Vee Sunday afternoon for the first-ever Bearcat Caravan hosted by KXCV/KRNW-FM and the Northwest Missouri State University Alumni Association.
The event was meant to serve as a sort of grand-opening for Northwest fall intercollegiate sports, including football, soccer and volleyball. MIAA Division II play for the Bearcats begins Thursday, Sept. 5, with soccer against Wayne State University at 3 p.m. and football versus Saginaw Valley State at 6:30 p.m. Both contests are home games.
Both Bobby Bearcat and the Northwest cheerleaders greeted shoppers entering the supermarket Sunday during the hour-long meet-and-greet, which also included player autographs, photo-ops and giveaways provided by KXCV/KRNW staffers.
The campus-based public radio station serves as the flagship for the Bearcat Radio Network, which broadcasts 'Cats football and basketball games both at home and on the road.
Also on hand were veteran Bearcats broadcasters John Coffey and Matt Gaarder.
Coffey, who is beginning his 28th year as the KXCV voice of Bearcats football, said the caravan was a good way to generate fan excitement at the beginning of a new season.
"Getting the community involved is important, and the fans like it," Coffey said. "It's not just the football team, we've got soccer and volleyball players here as well, and I think the more you can get coaches and athletes out in front of the public, the better."
Interaction between players and fans is "really what Division II is all about," said Coffey, who noted that, in contrast to bigger football schools, people from the stands often get a chance to go down on the field and talk to the players after a game.
The athletes, he said, embrace that closeness, and have been known to spend time tossing a football around with youngsters before heading for the showers.
"That's just something you don't see after a Division I game," Coffee said.
No one doubts that football season ushers in a level of excitement in Maryville that is simply lacking in many college towns. But while the feeling of community shared by fans and players may be somewhat unique, Coffey said the big factor uniting Bearcat Nation boils down to one thing — winning.
"Winning accounts for a lot of it, that and the people like (athletics director) Mel Tjeerdsma and (head football coach) Adam Dorrel running the program. I know that winning makes our broadcasts sound a lot better, that's for sure."
Tjeerdsma, who coached the Bearcats to three national football titles before becoming athletics director, said events like the caravan that bring players and fans together help remind student-athletes they are part of something bigger than just a football team or a soccer squad.
"Maryville, really the entire northwest Missouri community, is a special place," Tjeerdsma said. "Our athletes are recognized, and we tell them, 'You are held in high esteem, so don't do anything to change that.'
Page 2 of 2 - "It really brings it to life when people talk about how we're like a family. It really is a family atmosphere, and that's important."