Photo courtesy of the Bethel Athletics Department
ARDEN HILLS, Minn.-Bethel is no stranger to being overlooked.
Head coach Steve Johnson’s squad has long endured comparisons to its in-state, and conference rival, Saint John’s. The Royals have been sent on the road for all three rounds of the D-III playoffs, heading to Belton on Saturday for a matchup against UMHB. And as the team awarded the final at-large bid into the national playoffs, there was a general sense of doubt surrounding Bethel’s ability to make a run in the postseason.
Doubt of which has been erased by this point, in victories over Wheaton and Linfield, as the Royals have more than backed up their No. 13 national ranking.
“It’s not bad being the underdog,” Johnson told True To The Cru on Thursday. “We just want to play hard, play together, trust our base and go from there.”
The Royals have been the definition of road warriors throughout these playoffs, joining Aurora and Wartburg as teams who have reached the quarterfinals without playing at home. In the first round, Bethel made the short trip to Wheaton, barely edging the Thunder, 34-32. They then followed that up by shocking Linfield in the second round, defeating the Wildcats on their home turf for just the third time since 2011.
“Ignorance is bliss sometimes,” Johnson said. “We didn’t know that [Linfield] was 60-2 [at home] until we got back home. Obviously we knew they were good though. It was a pretty special weekend and our guys really played well. We’re going to play hard for one another as long as they let us play.”
Johnson has been at Bethel for quite some time, 33 seasons now. And through the years, the program has evolved, from a somewhat-uncompetitive squad in the early 90’s into a midwest power. Yet the core values have always stayed the same; being grateful for everything, displaying toughness, and being devoted to both teammates and Christ. It has done more for the program than can be written in words.
“[Those core values] have evolved,” Johnson said. “We believe that being grateful is important, and then being grateful for The Cross is the number one deal. It causes us to come up grateful and from there there’s joy. Toughness is a discipline, but there’s even thankfulness for hard things, because it’s going to grow you. That’s who we are, and when it’s flushed out, it’s pretty powerful.”
Indeed it is. Linfield’s offense seemingly ran into a brick wall against the Royals’ defense last Saturday, as Bethel was simply more physical and did not give an inch, shutting out an offensive attack in the second half that finished the year averaging 44.7 points per game. The Royals hit hard, which is something UMHB must be prepared for entering the quarterfinal duel.
“I told our guys last week that I feel like sometimes people are starting to not want to play us because we win,” Johnson said. “But really, back in the day, it had nothing to do with the scoreboard. It had to do with the way we played and our brand. Because the game is supposed to be played with a physicality.”
But don’t get the wrong idea. Sure, Bethel is aggressive, relentless, and intense. This is also a team, however, who displays a great sense of humility, Johnson says, and truly cares for each other. There is no better example of this than in starting quarterback Jaran Roste, the one-time Minnesota Gopher who has been calling plays in Arden Hills since 2019. He has thrown for a whopping 7,849 career passing yards and 58 touchdowns, is a Gagliardi Trophy semifinalist alongside UMHB’s Kyle King, and off the field, works full-time with Bethel’s BUILD program, “which provides a supportive and comprehensive educational experience for students with intellectual disabilities.”
“He raises the level of all of us,”Johnson said of Roste. “He’s willing to learn. He’s poised. We’re so much better with him, and it’s nothing tangible, except that everybody kind of calms down [with him on the field].”
As Johnson adds, it takes a unique person who “can fit in with both 18-year olds and 80-year olds.” It’s just Roste’s way.
“I think there’s a lot of similarities between the two guys. I don’t know Kyle, but it’s that humility piece that makes them special. You can think about having a star quarterback with his chest out, and that’s a perfect way to have people not want to be by you. The opposite is true for these guys. It’s unbelievable for a team.”
Roste did not open his collegiate career at Bethel, but he was just 12 minutes down the road for the entire 2017 season, his freshman year. He took his talents to the University of Minnesota, where he redshirted for a season. But then, he felt a call back to Bethel, a university who had recruited him through high school, and a place to which he had family ties.
“He left the University of Minnesota, but it wasn’t because he wasn’t playing,” Johnson said. “Everyday life over here was a better fit. I had always hoped he’d come back, but I wanted to make sure he went to the right place.”
The right place was on the 245-acre campus, just north of St. Paul, Minnesota, and it is just a snapshot of Johnson’s entire roster. There is a sense of resilience, and community, found within a program which was hardened by an entire year without game action, due to Covid, in 2020.
“It was a crazy time to travel,” Johnson said, referencing the recent trip to Linfield. “We got there at four in the morning, and I was really impressed with the guys that they were happy with it. We talk about being grateful, and that’s easy to say, but I feel like our guys practice what they preach.”
Johnson and his team spent the last week preparing for an opponent this program has never faced, a late-season twist that almost comes as a welcome challenge. In first-time meetings, prior experience cannot be brought into the equation, forcing a team to rely on the things that have gotten it to this point in the postseason.
“It’s more fun,” Johnson said. “Especially because I’ve been here for a long time, we keep playing the same people. It’s really refreshing. There’s good and bad with Mary Hardin-Baylor. It’s not so fun preparing for [a roster] where everybody runs about a 4.3 [40-yard dash]. In that way, they’re pretty intimidating.
“At the same time, it’s football. We are super excited to play against somebody that doesn’t know us too well either. What I love is that it forces you to be yourself. You have to do what you do well, and make your adjustments off of that. We’re going to be Bethel, and if that’s not enough, we’ll go to finals and get stuff done. If we win, we’ll go on. There’s a little bit of freedom in that.”