The progress has been slow, but steady.
It may not be fast enough for some, but when McPherson College football coach Paul Mierkiewicz accepted the job in December of 2014, he knew he was going to pour a foundation and then start building brick-by-brick.
For Mierkiewicz and Bulldog fans, patience is a virtue. And he needs them to trust the process.
When Mierkiewicz took over as Mac coach before the 2015 season, the bottom had fallen out of the program.
Not record-wise, as the Bulldogs were 5-6 in the year before he took over. But there was a mass exodus of players after Steve Fox resigned, leaving Mierkiewicz with so few of bodies for spring practice of 2015 that he couldn’t even scrimmage.
So he and his staff rolled up their sleeves as they had to basically start from scratch.
Instead of the quick-fix of bringing in a bunch of junior college transfers for short-term success, Mierkiewicz decided to rely on freshmen and be in it for the long haul. He knew he would have to bite the bullet the first couple of years, but he believed that was the best way to go as junior college players are in the program for only two years.
The 2015 season was painful to watch. Basically playing a junior varsity team against other varsity KCAC teams, the results were predictable. The Bulldogs were winless and simply not competitive. Half of the starting lineup were freshmen.
Last year, Mierkiewicz brought in another big freshman class and sprinkled in a smattering of junior college transfers at the skill positions. While Mac was just 1-10, it had six losses by 10 points of less.
Progress was being made.
In Year 3, those freshmen who bought into the program and stayed were now juniors. The numbers were starting to grow, but still not quite as fast as Mierkiewicz had hoped. He started with approximately 80 players this fall, which is still short of his goal of about 95 to 100.
Mac was 3-7 this season, but again dogged by close losses. It took Bethany right down to the wire in the KCAC opener, giving up a TD in the final seconds to lose by 14.
In a game that could quite possibly have turned the season around if successful, the Bulldogs led KCAC powerhouse Kansas Wesleyan by 21 points in the third quarter, on the road no less, but KW charged back to eventually win in overtime.
Mac also lost a 7-point game to Friends and then in the final two games of the season, when the team was beat up physically and didn't have the depth to cover the injuries, it still was tied with KCAC co-champ Tabor 29-all after three quarters (losing 46-29) and then on Saturday, trailed national qualifier Sterling just 36-34 with 13 minutes to go before losing 50-34.
So the Bulldogs are on the cusp. Depth would appear to be the chief culprit, especially on the defensive side. Mac gave up more than 1,100 yards the final two weeks as the defense spent too much time on the field.
Chatting with Mierkiewicz after the Sterling game, he's confident he's building the program the right way. He was bursting with pride with the effort his team gave every week, noting that in no game did he feel like his team ever packed it in. The games against Tabor and Sterling should be proof of that.
The Bulldogs had a small senior class, which it honored on Saturday. Also honored was the late Braden Bush, who tragically died before the season from complications of an asthma attack. That was a blow to the team before the season ever started as Bush was expected to be a team captain and star of the secondary. Who knows how things might have been different as he was a big-time playmaker, a tremendous team leader and most likely would have been first-team All-KCAC had he played up to his usual production.
So retention is now going to be a key. Mierkiewicz had a lot of talented sophomores and freshmen who played major roles this season. The offense, with the addition of some linemen, should be among the best in the KCAC. The Bulldogs' main loss is running back Tyrone Campbell, but first-year players Corey Davis and Armond McCray showed they are more than capable. A big, bruising runner would be a nice addition and maybe another speed burner.
On defense, the Bulldogs have to get more physical and must upgrade in the secondary. They simply gave up too many yards this season, but that can't all be put on the defensive backs. They need help from the pass rush and the linebackers filling.
The special teams were solid, except for kick coverage. Mac gave up way too many long returns that led to good field position for their opponents. But punter R.J. Garza and place-kicker Jack Reid were better than average.
Mierkiewicz must sell the potential returnees that this team is not that far away. The players should know that. To play the best three teams as close as they did is a positive. Now he and his staff must get the numbers up on par with the Tabors, Sterlings and Kansas Wesleyans, teams that were able to survive injuries because of their depth.