Mierkiewicz gradually building Mac football program

By Steve Sell
April 26, 2017

Spring football is mostly a curiosity.

The annual spring college football game whets the appetite of the most fervent fan. Teams choose a variety of ways to conduct their spring games, but the bottom line is it’s a snapshot for what is expected in the fall.

McPherson College conducted its spring game on Saturday in conditions that could be described as “late-season football weather.” It was cool and windy, with a smattering of sunshine.

The Bulldogs will be heading into their third year under coach Paul Mierkiewicz. His first season was a virtual write-off as just a handful of players returned from the 2014 team and he basically threw a batch of freshmen into the fire, going up against other schools’ juniors and seniors. The result was predictable, an 0-fer season with none of the games being particularly close.

The Bulldogs were still a team on training wheels last year. Most of those freshmen who started in 2015 started in 2016 as well. They were joined by a nice crop of freshmen as the Bulldogs were still the youngest team in the KCAC by light-years.

Mac finished 1-10, but it was about as deceiving of a 1-10 as you will get. Among the losses were to Nebraska Wesleyan (34-29), Dordt (27-13, 20-13 until late in the game), Bethel (10-7), Ottawa (55-52), Friends (21-19), Saint Mary (17-7), Sterling (44-31) and 18-15 to Bethany, which kicked a 46-yard field goal on the final play of the game to win it.

The Bulldogs were competitive due to the fact Ed Crouch and Tyrone Campbell were two of the best offensive players in the KCAC. Crouch is a bigger version of former Mac star Turtle James, with quick feet and a rocket arm. For a while it appeared he might rush for 1,000 yards and throw for 2,000, but his rushing numbers tailed at the end of the year. He took a beating, but kept on ticking. He also had an inexperienced receiving corps that received on-the-job training. He'll again rival Sterling's Cedrick Phillips as the KCAC's best QB.

Campbell was the closest thing to Gerald Henderson I’ve seen at Mac. While Aaron Lafitte is the most talented back I’ve seen in a Bulldog uniform and Lamar Jacobs was a one-year wonder, Campbell’s shiftiness reminded me of the G-Man, still the school’s all-time leading rusher. Campbell, like Crouch, took a beating and was worn to a frazzle by the 11th game, coming up just short of 1,000 yards. If he can get some help and stay fresh, he'll go by the 1,000-mark this year.

The Mac defense also made big strides last year despite little depth. However, expected stars Dalton Whitfield and Travis Steenson won’t return, a huge blow. They would have been the heart and soul and two of the best in the KCAC. But there are a couple of redshirts who could make their loss easier to take.

For Mierkiewicz, it’s now all about recruiting. Given the fact the Bulldogs bottomed out numbers-wise after the 2014 season (despite a 5-6 record), he’s had to basically start over. It takes time to get the numbers back to where they need to be as Mac is nowhere near close to where he wants the roster size he desires. In his successful days as head coach at Hastings College in Nebraska, he had teams with close to 100 players.

He had about 45 players suited up on Saturday, with another 10 held out for one reason for another. I'm guessing he'll have close to that number returning in the fall and he needs a home run of a recruiting class. A swing and miss would keep this program treading water.

Mierkiewicz needs help everywhere. He finished last season with two running backs and the offensive line was threadbare, which it still is. The secondary needs restocked.

He’s been very mum about his recruiting class. He’s told me he doesn’t talk about recruits until they’re on campus in August. He doesn't want to pump up the hype about players he may think he has now, but fail to show up in the fall, a common occurrence at this level.

I’m sure after last year’s near-misses, a legitimate season goal would be .500. It will be tough to break into the upper crest that is dominated by Tabor, Kansas Wesleyan, Sterling and Ottawa. I keep hearing all these stories out of Bethany that it’s going to be a monster turnaround year as it has backed up the truck for transfers and has a dozen redshirts. Saint Mary is always competitive, while Friends has a new coach who has a direct pipeline to the junior colleges and could engineer a quick fix. Bethel and Southwestern are similar to the Bulldogs in that they’re rebuilding.

While there has been minimal football success at Mac in my nearly 40 years of covering the Bulldogs, victory can be achieved. Brian Ward proved that and then Joe Bettasso had an undefeated season coaching Ward’s players in his first year. Mac was a combined 19-3 in 2009 and 2010, that latter season one of the most dominant in KCAC history as nearly every game was decided by halftime.

I hope Mierkiewicz succeeds. He’s well-liked at the school and in the community. He’s often said he likes coaching at this level and doesn’t view this job as a stepping stone. He’s in for the long haul and I think the administration will give him the time needed.