Patrick Reusse
See more of the story

The Bethel Royals reached the NCAA Division III semifinals in 2007 and 2010, running into mighty Mount Union on both occasions. They were MIAC champions at 8-0 in 2013, then lost at home to North Central in the quarterfinals, when the field was frozen and the air was frigid, and all-important quarterback Erik Peterson was injured.

The Royals gave a rare loss to Glenn Caruso’s St. Thomas machine in 2014, and then blew a playoff chance in the season’s final game with a 62-61, two-overtime loss to Augsburg and quarterback Ayrton Scott.

St. John’s had returned to first place that season, and entering every autumn the expectation was that the MIAC’s Big Three would be the Tommies, the Johnnies and the Royals.

Dawson Brown intercepted three passes for Becker in the 2014 Prep Bowl, assisting greatly in the Bulldogs’ upset victory over DeLaSalle for the Class 4A championship.

He then became the latest in a line of Becker standouts to head for Bethel to play for coach Steve Johnson.

“We’ve had a good connection with Bethel,’’ said Dwight Lundeen, Becker’s legendary coach. “I had two sons play there. It’s almost a pipeline.’’

Brown’s parents were Bethel grads, his father, Todd, played there in the losing days before Johnson got things rolling, and Dawson had attended numerous Royals games as a fan. He arrived for fall practice in 2015 expecting what he had seen from the stands: fierce football and many victories.

“The freshmen that year were as good of a recruiting class as we’ve had here,’’ said Johnson, winding down his 30th season at Bethel.

The 2015 Royals went 5-5 overall and 4-4 in the MIAC. “We had our chances and couldn’t finish,’’ said Brown, then a freshman linebacker at around 200 pounds.

Bethel was determined to make that mediocrity a blip on the program’s résumé as it made the 254-mile bus trip from Arden Hills to Dubuque, Iowa, to open the 2016 season.

Dubuque’s Conor Feckley passed for 634 yards, there were four touchdown passes of 60 yards or more, and Dubuque defeated Bethel 70-53. There were two buses for the 5-hour trip back home.

“One for the offense, one for the defense,’’ Brown said.

How was the mood in the defense’s bus? “We usually have a lot of spirit on the bus rides,’’ he said. “This time there was a lot of staring out the window.’’

Bethel finished 5-5 again and 5-3 in the MIAC. And in 2017, it was the same — 5-5 overall, 5-3 in the MIAC — and included was a 58-13 walloping against St. Thomas.

The 2018 season would be the last chance for the best-ever Bethel recruiting class.

Again, the season opened on the road against a strong team from Iowa: Simpson College. “It was 100 degrees in Storm Lake, hot as I’ve seen it for a game,’’ Johnson said. “What we say to the players is, ‘Stay in the fight,’ and it was never more true than that day.’’

Simpson had pulled ahead 22-21, and then Bethel put together two long, time-consuming drives, and the Royals got on the bus with a 41-29 victory — and the confident start needed for a turnaround season.

A year ago, Johnson hired Mike McElroy, a young coach who had worked for Jerry Kill with the Gophers, as his defensive coordinator.

McElroy installed what Johnson calls a 4-2-5, with hybrids in the back that are as much linebackers as safeties. Brown is one of those, and junior Cale Ferrin is the other.

“It’s an outstanding way to play defense,’’ Brown said. “We’re in the box a lot of the time. It seems tougher for the offensive linemen to find you to block.’’

Harrison Smith-style? “Same theory; not quite Harrison Smith,’’ he said.

Brown is a strong candidate to be a first-team safety when the American Football Coaches Association announces its All-America team.

Such honors are possible because of a Bethel-style season: tough running, tough defending, and finishing … particularly the hard-nosed 21-15 victory over St. Thomas in the season finale on Nov. 10.

“We beat ’em,’’ Brown said. “We were the better team that afternoon.’’

Bethel was in the playoffs and the Tommies were out. What followed were playoff victories against Wartburg and North Central, and then the Royals headed out on Friday for the 300-mile bus ride to Whitewater, Wis., to the face the mighty Warhawks in the quarterfinals.

How’s that bus ride compared to the one home from Dubuque two years ago?

“There’s going to be a lot more conversation,’’ Brown said. “We’re underdogs, but we’re excited.

“It’s great that Bethel football is back on the right path.’’