Takeaways from today’s KCAC Football Media Day in Wichita, which for the first time that I can remember didn’t feature my favorite cinnamon ice cream for dessert (though the cheesecake was quite good)...
• NO CLEAR-CUT FAVORITE — The two polls told the story. The coaches picked Ottawa to repeat as KCAC champion, while the media couldn’t decide between Tabor and Friends as they shared the top spot.
That tells me the KCAC race is going to be as wide open as the great Montana outdoors.
Not one media member picked defending champion Ottawa, even though the Braves are 56-7 in the conference the last seven years while going 11-25 in the first four under coach Kent Kessinger. Perhaps he “sold it” to the media that he’s going to have his youngest team in quite some time, but I have a feeling he was holding out.
Yet, I didn’t pick the Braves as I went with Friends by a sliver over Tabor. Longtime Falcons assistant coach and fellow golfer Matty Welch told me he believes this could be the most talented Friends team he’s been a part of. With Friends it always comes down to quarterback play, as there have been some years it’s been sub-standard. Tabor is looking to bounce back from an injury-plagued season and coach Mike Gardner certainly took the steps to shore up his team’s depth. He has 73 players back and is expecting 136 total for the first day of practice.
• GROWING PAINS AT MAC — First-year McPherson College coach Paul Mierkiewicz must feel like he’s coaching an expansion team.
If you take out Mac’s 2014 roster that produced a 5-6 record and held it up against this year’s roster, you won’t find many of the same names.
I can’t ever recall in recent years of the KCAC a team having so few of returning players except for a couple of years ago at Bethel. Mierkiewicz said he’d have “about 30” back, but that is stretching it.
The former highly successful coach at Hastings College has signed about 60 new players and lists 80 on the roster. But nearly 50 of those are freshmen and I don’t care how talented they are, you don’t win many games with freshmen.
Mierkiewicz and his staff are going to change the culture at Mac. They’ve weeded out players who wouldn’t be in line with his philosophy and he wants all his players to be held accountable for their actions both on and off the field. His Hastings teams were excellent not just on the football field, but in the classroom. I had one opposing assistant coach who went up against Mierkiewicz when he was at Hastings tell me today that the Bulldogs made a great hire and that he wouldn’t be surprised within a couple of years he had the Bulldog program back on track.
• Here’s a few of my honors from the day:
• Most thought-provoking coach — Jay Osborne, Saint Mary. He spent the first 5 minutes of his speech talking about how he wants his players to make an impact not just on the football field, but in the classroom and community. He’s not going to put up with a lot of nonsense and trash-talkers need not apply.
• Most humorous coach — Monty Lewis, Friends. You may as well retire this award for as long as he’s coaches in the KCAC. No coach cares more for the conference and wears his feelings on his sleeve like Monty. He’s the media’s darling.
• Most respected coach — When I talk to other coaches about which team they believe is the most prepared to play, the name that invariably comes up is Sterling’s Andy Lambert. The Warriors were 7-4 last year after a 1-3 start. Lambert has his work cut out this year as he must replace arguably the KCAC’s two most dynamic players, quarterback Reggie Langford and dual-threat Antonio Bray.
• Team being most overlooked — I know Bethany College has a new coach in Paul Hubbard, but the Swedes are my sleeper. They were picked seventh in both polls and I’ll guarantee you this right now – there’s no way they finish that low. Their offensive line may be the KCAC’s best and there’s still plenty of skill players left over. I think they’re going to be the surprise team and I picked them No. 3.
• Biggest mystery team — Kansas Wesleyan. The Coyotes were 2-9 last year, but adding former McPherson College standouts Miles Balthazor and Kelly Cordova, Friends’ super defensive back Sequente Marks and Bethany’s uber-physical Marcus Bradley as transfers has upped their talent level in a hurry.
• ONE MAN’S BALLOT — Here’s my predicted order of finish:
1. Friends — The Falcons are always the KCAC’s most physical team and are in every game just because of their style. Monty Lewis is due for a championship.
2. Tabor — Opposing defenses know what’s coming with Tabor’s pounding running game, but they can’t stop it. Its home loss to McPherson College last year still ranks as one of the upsets of the 2014 season.
3. Bethany — Paul Hubbard is a Ted Kessinger disciple. The Swedes haven’t been able to duplicate The Good Doctor’s success since he’s been gone, but Hubbard is going to bring back the glory days.
4. Ottawa — If OU coach Kent Kessinger was trying to convince the media that his team may not have the experience to win, he convinced me.
5. Sterling — The Warriors were the masters of the close games last year, with three of their seven wins coming by 3 points or less. I can’t see them winning those close games without studs Reggie Langford and Antonio Bray.
6. Kansas Wesleyan — The Coyotes are on the move. I can’t wait until Oct. 3 when McPherson College plays them at their brand-new $7.5 million stadium. I hear the place is a palace, giving KW the best football-basketball combo in the conference as the Mabee Arena is second to none for basketball.
7. Saint Mary — I always tend to pick the Spires too low. Old habits are hard to break.
8. Bethel — The Threshers are my No. 2 mystery team behind Kansas Wesleyan. New coach Morris Lolar has an incredible 43 transfers on his roster, either jucos or players who were at other four-year schools.
9. McPherson College — The painfully young Bulldogs were a lock for last by the media. It will be interesting to see if new coach Paul Mierkiewicz has a trick or two up his sleeve.
10. Southwestern — When I started covering the KCAC, the Moundbuilders were the most feared team along with Bethany. Since Monty Lewis (Friends’ current coach) left at Winfield, the Builders are 45-88.