Retention, retention, retention.
That’s the first order of business during the offseason for McPherson College second-year football coach Paul Mierkiewicz.
Never has a team more belied its record than the 2016 Bulldogs, who followed up their 0-10 season of 2015 with a 1-10 record, the victory coming in Week 3 against Southwestern.
But a closer look at the deceiving numbers show just how far Mierkiewicz has brought this program in a short time.
The Bulldogs opened their season with a five-point loss at Nebraska Wesleyan. Then came a 27-13 loss at Dordt College, which actually was a one-score game until late.
You’re seeing a theme here.
In KCAC play, the Bulldogs were 1-8. But they lost by two points to Friends, and by a field goal to Bethel, Ottawa and Bethany. In all those games they had the lead, especially the Ottawa game where they were up 14 points in the fourth quarter.
That’s four losses by 11 points. Toss in a 10-point loss to Saint Mary for good measure and that means five of the losses were by a total of 21 points.
In the other games, Mac trailed by a field goal with 12 minutes left against Kansas Wesleyan before the Coyotes scored 21 late points. Against NAIA playoff team Sterling, it was a three-point game going into the fourth quarter before it ended up 44-31.
Only against KCAC champion Tabor did the Bulldogs look non-competitive.
What this reveals is the Bulldogs simply did not have the depth to play 60 minutes.
Just harken back to what the situation was when Mierkiewicz arrived in December of 2014. Mac was coming off a 5-6 season under Steve Fox in his only year as head coach, but at semester there was a mass exodus of players. Mierkiewicz had about two dozen players left when he had his first spring practice.
Last year was just about surviving. The former Hastings College head coach was forced to play lineups that often included 11 or 12 freshmen against other teams’ juniors and seniors.
Fortunately, Mierkiewicz had pretty good retention. It couldn’t have been easy for players to return after being so thoroughly whipsawed in every game.
He added some quality freshmen and a sprinkling of transfers. Those transfers made a huge impact as McPherson High product Travis Steenson (All-Jayhawk Conference at Butler County) made the KCAC first team at linebacker and probably will receive some type of All-American mention. Quarterback Ed Crouch and running back Tyrone Campbell were two of the most dynamic players in the KCAC, both earning second-team honors.
The Bulldogs, for a 1-10 team, had some good players, just not enough of them.
The offensive and defensive lines were loaded with freshmen and sophomores. Should those players come back, youth can not be used as an excuse anymore. It’s time to produce as they should be experienced as many will have had 21 KCAC starts in their careers.
What I think the Bulldogs need is an infusion of speed and depth. Amazingly, they made it through the season with just two running backs, Campbell and Zack Melius. Conversely, Tabor unleashed a stable of running backs, some of whom didn’t play for a half but would enter the game with fresh legs against a worn-down defense.
Mac also needs a couple of game-changers in the receiving corps. The group it has does a good job in the possession game, but they need to stretch the field and allow Crouch to display his howitzer arm.
Of course, Mierkiewicz would like to get bigger and deeper in the offensive line, but there’s some real potential there.
Defensively, the Bulldogs lose key players Michael Rabara and Kavoderic McIntyre, but everybody else could return. Steenson, defensive end Dalton Whitfield and safety Braden Bush will be among the best in the KCAC at their respective positions. Mac would like to get a little more physical at linebacker and faster in the secondary. The line was populated with freshmen who have exciting potential.
Special teams will need to be addressed as some of the losses came because of that area. There are returning players, but competition always is welcomed.
Mierkiewicz is building this program the right way and has support from the administration. If he had his way down the road, he’d like to have Senior Days with about 20 players being honored. This year if you blinked you missed Senior Day as there were just four on the team.
That’s why “retention, retention, retention” is the most important phrase associated with the program right now.