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Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Glendive native fights through injury to become a key player for Rocky

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By Eric Killelea

Ranger-Review Staff Writer

Rocky Mountain College Battlin’ Bears wide receiver Taylor Schwartz has built an athletic career by seizing opportunity.

That was true when he switched from offense to defense and then back to offense in an effort to help the team. That was true when he replaced an injured wideout last year and started the last five games of the season. And that was definitely true when he overcame a recent injury to compete for a permanent starter position as a redshirt junior.

Head coach Jason Petrino noted in email on Thursday that Taylor “is a great person who has worked extremely hard,” since his staff arrived in Billings in the spring of 2016.

“Taylor was playing his best at the wide receiver position at the end of last year, but then had some setbacks in the off season,” Petrino wrote, referring to Taylor having torn his meniscus during winter agility drills (Taylor believes he partially damaged the C-shaped disk cushioning his right knee when he was tackled on a fly-sweep during the last game of the season), before undergoing surgery and enduring physical therapy twice-a-week for more than a month. Taylor eventually rejoined the team during spring ball where he jogged his routes to strengthen his knee, while studying game formations and strategy. 

As Taylor tells it, “I never had an injury like this and I was worried about it getting back to normal. I have to give props to my physical therapist and the coaches for giving me confidence. It’s not a super serious injury. I have no problems anymore since the surgery and I’m exactly the same that I was before I tore my meniscus.”

Taylor was medically cleared three months ago, and has been vying for a starting position at daily practices ever since. On Wednesday, he ran in full padding for the first time since his injury. 

“Taylor has worked extremely hard overcoming those injuries this summer,” Petrino wrote. “He has improved tremendously and currently competing to be one of the starters at the wide receiver positions.”

Also in email, offensive coordinator Chris Stutzriem shared that Taylor “has done a great job of buying into what we have asked him to do as a wide receiver at Rocky.”

“Taylor is a very good athlete,” Stutzriem wrote Thursday. “I am excited for the next couple years with Taylor. I am expecting him to contribute a lot and be a big time player for us this year and in the future.”

The Schwartz family bonds over injury

Earlier this week, Todd and Deb Schwartz remembered “always striving to keep our kids really involved in sports.” Taylor and his twin brother, Tanner, competed in wrestling, basketball, baseball, track and field, and football. Their sister, Ashley, tried her hand at soccer and tennis, among other sports, before focusing on cheerleading. 

All three siblings enrolled at Rocky Mountain, a small college that promotes a tight-knit community similar to Glendive. There, Taylor and Tanner joined the football team and started studying business management, as Ashley continued to cheer and went on to graduate last year with a degree in elementary education.

Everyone in the family thought Taylor would go out for the Rocky Mountain track team, since he won Class A titles for both pole vaulting and the 4x100 Relay for Dawson County High School. But he decided to play football instead. 

“I was leaning toward track,” Taylor said an interview this week. “But I came to visit Rocky and fell in love with football. Here, I can focus on one sport. Practice, watch film, lift weights, practice. My commitment level is so much more than it was in high school.”

Todd and Deb welcomed the decision and enjoyed his progress. But then the injury happened. “We didn’t really know how it would affect the rest of his career,” Deb said. “It was upsetting and I’m sure it was upsetting for him not knowing where it was going to lead. But the surgery went really well and the physical therapists made sure he was ready to go for this season.”

Two brothers injured, one recovers

There is a bittersweet twist to Taylor’s recovery: His twin, Tanner, herniated a disk in his lower lumbar, while lifting weights in January. And unlike Taylor, Tanner cannot return to the field. 

“It was kind of a hard pill to swallow,” Deb said. “One twin succeeding, while the other considers his options. You have to stand up and walk and look at your life.” 

Tanner has tried physical therapy and a host of other types of “pain relief” in the forms of acupuncture and massage. But he still hurts. And he is considering surgery in October to replace the disk in his back.

Taylor and Tanner are now sharing a house in Billings with several other students. Three of the five young men are football players. 

“They eat, live and breathe it,” Deb said. “It’s going to be hard for Tanner to take a step back and watch, but he and his brother will still be competing like they’ve always have been.”

For his part, Taylor has also struggled with watching his brother leave the team. “We’re super competitive with each other,” Taylor said. “Growing up, he was more athletic than me and better at sports than me. I caught up in high school. But now it feels bad that he’s not out there. It’s kind of hard not knowing what to say to him right now. There’s only so much you can say.”

Petrino has reached out to Taylor and opened his doors to Tanner. 

“Coach tells me my brother can come around and hang out with the guys,” Taylor said. “It’s really nice hearing that from the head coach.” 

Focus turns 

to season opener 

Despite the injuries, Taylor said he must continue to work on capturing a starting position for Rocky Mountain, where coaches plan to defeat Dickinson State University in two weeks on their quest to improve upon a 4-7 record last year.

Standing at 6’0”, 180 pounds, a speedy Taylor hopes to be useful on a team, where “guys are getting bigger, faster and stronger in our off season program but also improved their football intelligence so that they can perform better,” according to Petrino, who enters his second season as head coach.

“Those that have stayed understand the work and time commitment it takes in order to be a better football program,” Petrino wrote. “The Frontier Conference is loaded with talented football programs. We hope that we can be included, but we know we must understand the process it takes to get there.”

Adding to the talent pool, the coaches replaced graduated quarterback Chase White with a 6’5” 205-pound versatile Wibaux native Jacob Bakken, who threw for 657 yards and ran for another 264 during eight games last year. “Jacob had a very productive off season,” Petrino wrote. “He has positioned himself to be the starter, but we feel we have some great competition there with Brady Pickering, who is comfortable with the play book and has improved tremendously, as well as incoming freshman Drew Korf and John Bass who have shown great upside during the early days of camp.”

Taylor and Bakken grew up together, playing football, baseball and basketball in neighboring communities. They roomed across the hall from one another during their freshman year at Rocky Mountain. 

“We stayed friends,” Taylor said. “It’s easy to talk to him about things. It’s nice being good friends with the quarterback. I feel like we’re always on the same page on the field.”

Today, as Todd and Deb plan their game trips from Glendive, Taylor maintains his focus in Billings, thinking of the goals he hopes to achieve for himself and in the name of his brother. 

“I want to be that guy everyone can count on,” Taylor said. “I am the older guy in the wideout group. All the guys look up to me. I just want to help them out when I can, start every game and stay healthy, be an All-Conference guy.”

Reach Eric Killelea at rrsports@rangerreview.com.

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