George Fox football took a major step forward in 2016, recording the school's first-ever winning season (6-5) and going 5-2 in the Northwest Conference to set another high-water mark with a third-place league finish in the third year of competition since the program was rebooted.
That continued a steady upward trend, but reaching the next level promises to be harder in 2017, as the Bruins will not only face two ranked opponents in the non-conference season, but will likely have to knock off either Whitworth or NWC powerhouse Linfield in order to continue moving up the league ladder.
"We measure ourselves by the best," coach Chris Casey said. "We purposely play a tough non-conference schedule to get us ready for conference. Our guys are confident that we can get the job done with such a tough schedule. Every game for us is a championship. … Our mindset stays the same with everyone we play."
George Fox has reason for optimism, including the return of 10 all-conference players, including first-team selections Nolan Schuler at tackle and Charles Riga at linebacker.
The Bruins will field their most experienced roster yet, led by the class of redshirt seniors who joined the program as freshmen during the "zero year" of the program that did not include any games, which includes Schuler, Riga and fourth-year starting quarterback Grant Schroeder, who was named second team All-NWC in 2016.
In all, there are 28 players in that group, including wide receiver Brad Lander and defensive lineman Justin Kruse, both of whom earned all-league recognition as well.
"We couldn't have done this without them," Casey said. "They are what this program is. The leadership we have on this team is tremendous. This will not only be special for our guys, but for the fans, the community and for us coaches as we've watched these young players grow up into men."
Several underclassmen have broken through in recent seasons as well, like sophomore running back Wes Riddell, junior offensive lineman Nathan Corliss and junior defensive end Caleb Dalzell, but Casey also expects an influx of talent this fall.
"This is our best recruiting class," he said. "We wanted to strengthen some areas with this class and bring in a player for each position group. They will learn a lot this year with the leadership that we have in place."
George Fox will open on the road Saturday at No. 15 Wisconsin-Platteville, which rolled to a 35-0 victory in Newberg last season, before facing No. 25 Redlands at home Sept. 16 and Wisconsin-Eau Claire Sept. 23.
In league play, everyone is still chasing No. 9 Linfield, which advanced to the second round of the NCAA Division III playoffs, where the Wildcats fell to eventual national champion Mary Hardin-Baylor.