McPherson College’s football success this season won’t be based solely on wins and losses.
It will be on improvement game-by-game and then retention during the offseason.
When former Hastings College head football coach Paul Mierkiewicz — who led the Broncos to the national playoffs twice during his tenure — was hired in December, he probably didn’t envision that most of the potential returning players off the 2014 team would not be back.
Two of the Bulldogs’ best players from last year, quarterback Kelly Cordova and running back Miles Balthazor, are big reasons Kansas Wesleyan is off to a 2-0 start. Cordova is perhaps the Coyotes’ most important player as he plays quarterback and receiver, while Balthazor is their top rusher and will be among the best backs in the KCAC.
As for the other players who didn’t return, you can run the gamut of reasons. Some were not good fits for the school, some couldn’t make it academically while others were growing weary of the coaching carousel. Mierkiewicz is the fourth head coach in the last five years and you simply can’t build stability in a program with such turnover. Joe Bettasso’s last of two years was 2011, Pete Sterbick was here in 2012 and 2013 and Steve Fox lasted one year.
When Mierkiewicz made his debut Saturday night against nationally ranked Doane College, he sent out a 22-man lineup that included 11 freshmen, four seniors, four sophomores and three juniors. Only three offensive starters from last year were in the lineup and just two 2014 regulars from last year’s great defense took the field.
Mierkiewicz could have taken the quick-fix route and brought in about 20 junior college players for a chance at immediate success. But with jucos you basically get them for two years and they’re gone.
Instead, he’s biting the bullet. He’s brought in a nice freshman class, thrown them into the fire and it’s his hope they’ll provide the base for future success.
The Bulldogs’ roster is small both literally and figuratively. I counted just over 50 players who actually suited up on Saturday, which is about half of what a majority of the other KCAC schools have. It’s also a very small team physically, as the offensive and defensive lines were giving away some size. The offensive line had three freshmen starters and went up against a Doane defense that was nearly all seniors and juniors. Those two or three extra years of maturity are immeasurable and it showed. Quarterbacks RJ Garza and Christian Johnston ran for their lives almost every time they dropped back to pass
The Mac offense managed only one first down through three quarters and just nine yards. It finally got it going in the fourth quarter, due mostly to freshman running back Zach Boyd, whose hails from legendary football power Silver Lake. Boyd kept pounding against the Doane wall all night and finally broke off a long TD run, finishing the game with just under 100 yards.
The defense is ahead of the offense. Dalton Whitfield, Bradley Campbell and Joseph Mooney were particularly solid, as were defensive backs Michael Rabara and Kavoderic McIntyre. But they spent much too long on the field and again, there’s simply no depth.
The biggest positive to take out of the night was how hard the team played. It never gave up and Mierkiewicz says he has a group that is eager to be coached up so it can get better.
If the Bulldogs can somehow pick off a couple of wins — their KCAC opener Sept. 19 at Southwestern is probably their best opportunity — I would consider it a successful season. It will then be up to Mierkiewicz and his staff to upgrade the talent level and build up the numbers to the 105 that he covets. That will only happen, though, if he can keep this team together and not allow it to get discouraged during what is expected to be some tough times.