The Oklahoman

Northeaste­rn State alum is trying to rebuild former power

- Berry Tramel Northeaste­rn State schedule

TAHLEQUAH — J.J. Eckert grew up idolizing Northeaste­rn State football players. Then he became one.

Our series on state-college football continues with a look at the RiverHawks. Eckert’s father, Tom, was the 16year head coach at Northeaste­rn, and in 1994, J.J.’s freshman season, Northeaste­rn won the NAIA championsh­ip.

But when J.J. Eckert returned to Tahlequah as head coach for the 2019 season, he found a different situation. The RiverHawks have floundered in the Mid-America Intercolle­giate Athletics Associatio­n. From 2014-19, Northeaste­rn went 6-60.

“One of those things, the good Lord always puts you where he needs you,” Eckert said. “I’ve never been one of those people out there, trying to find jobs. Being where you’re wanted. I think it was a great opportunit­y to come back here.”

Eckert’s first NSU team went 0-11, then Covid wiped out the 2020 season. The RiverHawks got in three spring scrimmages, plus a 38-0 loss at Division I-AA Tarleton State.

So this is a rebuilding job of the highest order.

Eckert called it a “daunting task” but said, “It’s an honor to be back at Tahlequah, an honor to be back at NSU.”

Eckert has been a successful coach. In 14 junior-college seasons as a head coach, two at Garden City (Kansas) and 12 at Kilgore (Texas), Eckert’s teams went a combined 85-61.

“Obviously, we are trying to do some things to change the culture, change the expectatio­ns,” Eckert said. “I think we’re better. The big thing still is all the little things it takes to be a winning program.”

Eckert is rebuilding around his captains: offensive tackle Madison Wrather of Yukon; wide receiver Mark Wheeland of Haskell, who had 34 catches for 520 yards in 2019; defensive end Damani Carter, a transfer from Arkansas; and cornerback Bryce Brown, a transfer from OSU.

Quarterbac­k Jacob Medrano of Muskogee made seven starts in 2019 for the RiverHawks and completed 55.7% of his passes, for 1,027 yards.

“Obviously, we’ve gotta make sure we’re better on the offensive lines and defensive lines,” Eckert said. “It’s a physical league. Very competitiv­e, tough conference. Gotta make sure you pack your lunch every week.”

Sept. 4: Emporia State Sept. 11: at Missouri Southern Sept. 18: Pittsburg State Sept. 25: at Lincoln

Oct. 2: Central Missouri Oct. 7: Central Oklahoma Oct. 16: at Missouri Western Oct. 23: Northwest Missouri Oct. 30: at Washburn Nov. 6: Fort Hays State Nov. 13: at Nebraska-Kearney

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