Mac has no way to go but up

By Steve Sell
November 09, 2015

It was Senior Day Saturday for McPherson College’s football team, but in reality that was a misnomer.

It should have been called Freshman Day.

The Bulldogs amazingly started 13 freshmen among the 22 spots, one reason they lost their final home game 35-7 to Sterling and a major reason they’re 0-9 on the season, with only one game having been relatively competitive through all four quarters, a 28-14 loss to Bethel.

In contrast, Sterling — which can finish third with a victory on Saturday against second-division Southwestern — started a freshman at quarterback (the KCAC’s leading rusher in Cedrick Phillips), four seniors and six juniors on offense. No freshmen started on defense, as the Warriors sent out two seniors, five juniors and four sophomores, two of those sophomores having spent a year as a redshirt so in essence they were three-year players.

In other words, it was the JVs against the varsity.

First-year McPherson College coach Paul Mierkiewicz certainly didn’t expect to inherit quite the mess that he did following the departure of Steve Fox, who left after one year and a 5-6 record. 

A harbinger of things to come came during spring football practice where the Bulldogs barely had enough players to put 11 v. 11 on the field, as there was an exodus of players at semester for one reason or another. Two of the very best, Kelly Cordova and Miles Balthazor, wound up at Kansas Wesleyan, where they have been huge factors in the Coyotes experiencing a 180, as they were 2-9 last year and are 9-1 this year.

I applaud how Mierkiewicz has handled this difficult situation. He once was the head coach at Hastings College in Nebraska, where he annually fielded a team of 100 or more players,  experienced two national playoff seasons and won 65 games in 10 years. 

At the start of the season there were nearly 80 players listed on the Mac roster, but that included players who had indicated they were coming, only to never show and many of them were expected starters. There were some quality players in addition to Cordova and Balthazor who could have returned and certainly would have been enough for the Bulldogs to cobble together a few wins. Less than 50 players have suited up most of the season.

He’s never made excuses, playing the hand he’s been dealt. He and his small coaching staff have done their best to coach up this freshman-dominated team and improvement has been made, even if it doesn’t reflect in the scores and the record. 

Mierkiewicz vows he’s in this for the long haul, that he likes the McPherson community and want his kids to graduate high school here. And he’ll probably be given as much time as he needs as he has the pedigree and, quite frankly, the school probably is tired of changing the nameplate on the head coach’s office year after year. Of course, he’s got to be given some tools to work with as the college has to do its part from a financial package standpoint. It’s a great academic school as the players certainly will leave with a quality education.

The problem is the Bulldogs are simply so outmanned physically and there’s thread-bare depth. On defense, they started an all-freshmen front three and it’s hard for them to get any push when they’re going up against offensive lines that average 280 pounds and are primarily seniors and juniors. Linebacker is the strength of the team, but even then three of the four starters are less than 200 pounds. And the secondary averages 170 pounds a man, as it includes two freshmen and a sophomore.

Offensively, the Bulldogs are even more physically challenged. The line has been unable to keep out defenders as it, too, is somewhat undersized when compared to the rest of the teams in the KCAC. Mierkiewicz sent out an all-freshman starting backfield as the seven players who threw or ran on Saturday were freshmen except for one.

But you can see there’s some talent, it just needs time to grow and mature physically. Mierkiewicz’s top recruiting effort may be to keep these young men at Mac and hope they don’t go elsewhere. He has preached family and after Saturday’s game, they gathered for a team meal that also included those close to the program. I really hadn’t had a chance to see these young men out of uniform and my first impression was — other than they were very polite and courteous — was how young they looked. You can tell many of them spent Fridays of last year playing under high school lights.

With only seven seniors, Mierkiewicz has a chance to at least have 30 to 35 players back since every school loses anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen players after a season due to the college experience not being to their liking or the fact they want to do something else. That means he and his staff have to be exhaustive on the recruiting trail, as if he wants to reach his expected numbers he’s going to need about 65 to 70 new players, which are the numbers Ted Kessinger used to bring in annually at Bethany College and that Mike Gardner does at Tabor. There are so many players at Tabor that they have to issue duplicate numbers.

It doesn’t take much in the KCAC to make a sudden turnaround. Look what Wesleyan did this year. Look what Brian Ward did at McPherson College, as he went from four wins in his first year to nine by his third and an NAIA playoff berth. The following year the Bulldogs were KCAC champs and hosted a national playoff game as they had climbed to No. 6 in the nation.

I’ve covered KCAC football for 37 years and this was about as watered down as I’ve seen it. If the favorites win as expected on Saturday, only four of the 10 teams will win more than three games. There’s a chance there will be five three-win teams and then McPherson College. There were very few new impact players this year, sans Sterling’s Phillips and Saint Mary’s Drew Cortez, who put up gaudy numbers simply because the Spires threw it far more than any team in the conference. So if Mierkiewicz can come up with four or five top-quality impact players (transfers especially) to go with this year’s holdovers, the rebuild might not be such a lengthy process.

In the last five seasons since those glory days of 2010 and 2009 (Mac was 19-3 those two years), the Bulldogs have not had a winning season. They’ve won four, four, four and five games until cratering this year. Sometimes they say you have to hit rock bottom before you can start the climb to the top. The Bulldogs certainly can’t go any lower and the only way to go is up.