ST. PETER, Minn. – It’s not that they don’t appreciate the achievement. Last season, Gustavus quarterback Mitch Hendricks directed the top passing offense in the MIAC and the fourth best in all of Division III, throwing for 35 touchdowns and 3,405 yards — and connecting with twin brothers Matt and Gabriel Boyce for 27 of those scoring passes and an eye-popping 2,253 yards.
All three made the all-MIAC first team and set a multitude of school records. But none of that moved the trio any closer to their goal of a conference championship, which is why they won’t be satisfied with a repeat performance in 2015.
“If we put up the same numbers as last year, if we’re as efficient as we were last year, that’s not good enough,’’ Hendricks said. “We’re not looking to be just as good as we were last year. We need to be better.’’
Hendricks and the Boyce brothers begin their final season at Gustavus on Saturday, when the Gusties open their schedule at Crown College. Last year’s 6-4 record gave Gustavus its first back-to-back winning seasons since 2001-2002. But after a 6-0 start, the Gusties faltered over the final month, losing four in a row to MIAC powers St. John’s, Bethel, Concordia (Moorhead) and St. Thomas.
Their league schedule is identical this season, providing the opportunity to write a different ending. Though it may be a tall order to surpass last fall’s record-breaking numbers, Hendricks and the Boyces are aiming even higher, in the hopes of pursuing the program’s first MIAC title since 1987.
“Losing those last four games, that was something that drove us in the offseason,’’ said Gabriel Boyce, who caught a team-high 89 passes for 1,057 yards in his first season with the Gusties. “Our offense is not being complacent.
“Even though we had a pretty dynamic passing offense last year, we didn’t finish the season the way we wanted. We know we have work to do. Our goal is to work together and make each other better every day, so we’re ready for that next step.’’
Matt Boyce, a preseason All-America pick by D3football.com, is the only one of the trio to play his entire college career at Gustavus. The Minnetonka graduate followed older brother Anthony to the Gusties in 2012. Gabriel, Matt’s fraternal twin, transferred to Gustavus last year after two seasons at Concordia-St. Paul.
Hendricks, from Bemidji, began his college career at St. John’s; overwhelmed by the 200-player roster, he transferred to Gustavus, where he thought he could make a greater impact. He spent much of his first season in 2013 handing the ball to senior running back Jeffrey Dubose, who holds most of the school’s rushing records. But Matt Boyce quickly became his favorite receiver—and when Gabriel joined them last season, Hendricks said, the three were “immediately explosive.’’
With Dubose gone, Gusties coach Peter Haugen challenged Hendricks and the Boyces to fill the offensive void. They showed their capabilities in a 55-31 victory over Augsburg, as Hendricks completed 33 of 39 passes for 504 yards and seven touchdowns. Matt Boyce caught 12 of those for 178 yards and three scores, and Gabriel Boyce had 11 catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns.
Matt Boyce finished with a school-record 17 touchdown catches last season, third most in Division III, and his 117 receiving yards per game ranked 10th in the nation. Hendricks ranked third in passing yards per game (340.3) and sixth in passing touchdowns (35).
“We could see early last year they were a very confident group,’’ Haugen said. “They’re really intelligent guys, very intensely competitive. And they understand that in a league like (the MIAC), which is very special and very difficult, you have to find ways to get better every day. It’s a process of constant improvement, and they’re humble enough to recognize that.’’
Hendricks and the Boyce brothers are close friends off the field, which has added to their on-field chemistry. Matt Boyce called Hendricks the smartest quarterback he ever has worked with, adding that Hendricks is constantly researching opponents via computer and looking for ways to gain an edge. Hendricks said the speedy Boyces always find ways to get open, and both can make plays after the catch with their quickness and savvy.
The Gusties’ offense lost some steam over the final four games last season, but three of those losses — to St. John’s, Bethel and Concordia — came by a total of 26 points. That pushed Hendricks and the Boyces to prepare harder than ever. As proud as they are of last year’s personal records, they have something bigger to chase.
“Teams know who we are now and what we’re all about,’’ Hendricks said. “But we want to establish something here that will last after we’re gone. And that’s not Gustavus being .500. I want Gustavus to be in the top three in the MIAC every single year.’’