The Salina Country Club hosted KCAC Media Day on Friday, and yours truly was there for the third year in a row to survey all the goings on. My biggest surprise of the day was definitely Friends revealing that both starting quarterback Tim Rozzell and two-time all-KCAC defensive back Cole Perry were no longer with the Falcons. Rozzell left the team before spring drills for personal reasons and Perry was kicked off the team in January for a violation of team rules.
Still, Friends is the team to beat. And I understand why. They’ve got some monsters back on defense and if sophomore QB Jayme Bristow can keep his head above water, he’s got enough talent around him to win a title. Ottawa, the defending champ, has talent but no Ethan Haller. McPherson is also loaded with playmakers but an unproven coaching staff is a huge question mark.
Here’s a look at the 10 teams in the order they were picked in the coaches poll:
1. Friends (8-2 overall, 7-2 league in 2009, No. 15 in final NAIA poll)
Coach: Monty Lewis, 8th year
Top returners: WR Mike Hyde, WR Doug Pierce, OL Jacob McKenzie, DE Dexter Davis
My take: Friends wasn’t going to stop the Ottawa juggernaut last year, but came a hair’s breath from returning to the NAIA playoffs. An opening-game shellacking by McPherson still stings and Friends opens against the Bulldogs on Sept. 11. Friends lacked a showcase running back last year and I think they’ve got a guy who can get it done in Wichita native and Missouri State transferJeran Trotter, who butted heads with Lewis last year after transferring from Missouri State but seems to have come around. “I kept Jeran in the doghouse last year because I didn’t think he realized there were guys in the league who were as good as him,” Lewis said. “We kind of needed to break him of that mentality and I think we’ve done that.”
2. Ottawa (11-1, 9-0, KCAC champion, No. 6 in final NAIA poll)
Coach: Kent Kessinger, 7th year
Top returners: WR Clarence Anderson, LB Josh Hojje
My take: We’ll learn a lot about the Braves early when they take on Baker on Aug. 28 to open the KCAC season. It’s the second year in a row Ottawa has played this early and there are A LOT more questions this year — mainly who replaces KCAC offensive player of the year Ethan Haller at QB? It’s a three-way race between juniors Jake Johnson, Travis Toon and Bobby Adamson for the honor … of trying to follow up the single-greatest season by a QB in league history. Good luck, fellas!!! Whoever does win, however, gets to throw to Anderson. Which ain’t so bad.
3. McPherson (8-1, 9-2 No. 12 in final NAIA poll)
Coach: Joe Bettasso, 1st year
Top returners: QB Shane Mascarenas, RB Aaron Lafitte, DE Scott Jones
My take: I’ve got to get out to watch Jones play this year. Call me weird but I get more enjoyment out of watching a top-notch pass-rusher than probably any other spot in football and dude dominates. Big question mark is how Bettaso will fare as the head coach. The Bulldogs have talent, but getting them to all vibe together? That’s on the coach. Brutal schedule to open the year with Friends and Ottawa back-to-back in 2nd and 3rd games.
4. Sterling (6-4, 5-4)
Coach: Andy Lambert, 7th season
Top returners: RB Rashard Colquitt, QB Keoki Burbank, OL Mike Danski
My take: The story on Sterling the last couple of years has been pretty repetitive: Competitive, but not good enough to threaten the top spots. Lambert gets his QB back in Burbank and a top-flight RB back in Colquitt along with three starting returners on the O-line, including Danski, who is one of the league’s best. Defensively, he gets seven starters back. Either the Warriors or Bethany could surprise this year and take a game from one of the Big 3.
5. Kansas Wesleyan (4-5, 5-5)
Coach: Dave Dallas, 13th season
Top returners: DB Ken Mitchell, RB Jake Winship, OL Oscar Torres, LB Adrian Thomas
My take: Kansas Wesleyan’s quagmire is a lot like Sterling’s — can win, but can’t win the big ones. The Coyotes and Dallas have been to the top before, though, and have a lot of talent back this season, led by Mitchell, who is one of the top 3 defensive players in the league IMHO. That there were 80 guys in KWU’s offseason program says a lot, too. That extra work is invaluable. Also, ‘Yotes are looking at getting a new stadium/field in the near future. On a side note … I was the sports editor at a tiny town called Ukiah in Northern California four years ago and covered the local JC, Mendocino College, where new KWU offensive coordinator was the last six years. Small world. We had a good laugh about it Friday.
6. Bethany (3-6, 4-6)
Coach: Jamie Cruce, 4th season
Top returners: WR Robert Anderson, OL Christopher Jackson, LB Milton Collins, DB Jeffrey Simplice
My take: It’s tough to argue with nine starters back on offense and seven on defense … but if I have to, I’ll argue that this group weathered one of the biggest collapses I’ve seen last season and I’m not sure if they’ve properly recovered from it. To wit: Bethany started last season 4-0 and finished the year 4-6. Tough stuff. There’s a three-way battle at quarterback and whoever wins will need to throw less than the disastrous 25 picks Steven Baker doled out last year. Swedes also need to establish a running game. In an aside, there were a couple of nice moments involving former coach and College Football Hall of Fame member Dr. Ted Kessinger, first when he came in the room and got a standing ovation and then again when Friends coach Monty Lewis recognized Kessinger during his speech as one of the biggest influences on his career. Good stuff.
7. Saint Mary (3-6, 3-7)
Coach: Lance Hinson, 6th year
Top returners: Not QB Daniel Robles!
My take: This happens sometimes in the KCAC — kids graduate before their eligibility is up and they decide to kick rocks and ditch the football career, which is understandable because most of the KCAC schools cost a mint to go to and they don’t want to fork over that cash b/c they’re not getting much help, scholarship-wise to begin with. Not saying that’s the case here, but Saint Mary QB Daniel Robles has graduated and isn’t coming back. With him, Spires were probably going to finish middle of the pack. Without him, they’re destined to be also-rans. See this quote from Hinson: “It’s possible we’ll play more freshmen this year than we ever have.” Uh-oh.
8. Southwestern(3-6, 3-7)
Coach: Ken Crandall, 4th season
Top returners: QB Jordan Barrett, WR Jeff Schaefer, LB Zak Tazkargy
My take: This one time I’ll say it … I was impressed with a 3-7 team. The Moundbuilders were soooooooo bad in 2008 that I didn’t think they could bounce back even this much, and they did, which means kudos for coach Ken Crandall and crew. But this year will be the real litmus test. They’ve got a lot of talent coming back and WR Jeff Schaeffer, a Winfield native, is on the brink of entering the league’s pantheon of great receivers (Anderson, Hyde, Pierce, Voth-Gaeddert … Schaeffer?) and QB Jordan Barrett is back, too, after starting all 10 games in 2009. The Moundbuilders have also got a new field and stadium this year that they’re CLAIMING will be ready for the opener. And there’s this … “There’s a lovely new Jinx cat that will be waiting for you when you come out,” Crandall said to the assembled KCAC coaches on Friday. “And we would love to have you step on that as you walk on the field.” He’s not kidding. Me? I’m infatuated with this team — probably b/c they were the team to beat when I was a kid … in the late 90s. I think Southwestern has always held a unique place among KCAC schools and it’d be interesting to see them good again.
9. Tabor 0-9, 0-10
Coach: Mike Gardner, 1st season
Top returners: None
My take: Gardner is back, and things couldn’t be more different in Hillsboro then when he left in 2005 and the Bluejays were 11-1 and KCAC champs. Winless last year, loved this quote from MG: “Every position on this team this fall will be wide open.” ‘Nuff said.
10. Bethel (3-6, 3-7)
Coach: Travis Graber, 1st season
Top returners: WR Lee Voth-Gaeddert, TE Matt Regier
My take: It’s always tough when a coaching staff flips over, but that may have been lessened in the case of Graber, who has been an assistant coach for the Threshers for the last 8 seasons. The single biggest problem facing Bethel is replacing two-time KCAC defensive player of the year and All-American lineman James McCartney. A back injury ended the career of honorable mention all-KCAC performer Caleb Stephens, who could’ve helped to lessen the blow. It could be a tough year for Bethel.
Thanks for reading.