One by one, the KCAC’s 10 football coaches stood at the podium inside a conference room in Old Town on Wednesday and talked about their teams. Different men — some loud, some funny, some stoic ... some a little long-winded.
It was the quiet one, Tabor’s Mike Gardner, who went last. And his team, for the first time in almost a decade, seems like it has a shot to win a championship.
The Bluejays, with a pair of All-KCAC preseason picks on offense in quarterback Simon McKee and running back James Monroe, were picked to win the conference title in both the media and coaches polls.
“Spring ball wrapped up and we were really positive about what we have coming back,” Gardner said. “We have a few guys on offense that we think will be able to move the ball for us, but how do we replace our guys up front? How is our depth? And can we stay healthy?”
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All valid questions, and all that will be answered in time. For now, it’s the Bluejays who have been pegged the team to beat after going 8-2 and finishing second in the KCAC last year, their best record since going 11-1 and winning the KCAC in 2005 in Gardner’s first stint as Tabor coach.
Two-time defending champion Ottawa was picked second in both polls. Friends was picked third in both polls and returns one of the best defensive players in the nation in 6-foot-2, 245-pound senior linebacker Marcus Carter, who led the KCAC with 149 tackles last season.
Friends coach Monty Lewis, trying to win his first conference title since 2008, has been a staunch defender of the KCAC on the national level, where the league has struggled mightily in the postseason.
“I may have gone on the record and said some things that have irritated some people,” Lewis said. “I simply don’t care. I love our conference. I don’t think there’s a better one nationally. I don’t care about the playoffs or what’s happened there in the past, because I think we have such a bright future.”
Ottawa opens the season Sept. 7 with back-to-back games against nationally-ranked teams from the Heart of America Athletic Conference, playing at No. 14 Baker and hosting No. 3 Missouri Valley, which beat the Braves in the first round of the NAIA playoffs last season.
“We want to play playoff-caliber teams so we know where we stand if we’re fortunate enough to represent the KCAC in the postseason,” Ottawa coach Kent Kessinger said. “We’ll know where we stand after those games.”
McPherson was picked fifth in the media poll and sixth in the coaches poll. Bethany and first-year coach Manny Matsakis, the former coach at Texas State and Emporia State, were picked seventh by the media and eighth by the coaches. Matsakis brought a newly-designed helmet for the Swedes to media day.
The helmet, with yellow and blue wings on each side, seemed to be a riff on the helmet worn by the popular comic-book character Thor.
“It’s neat that the administration got behind (the new helmets) and I think it’s something that helps get the fan base excited,” Matsakis said. “I think it got a good response just from what I’ve heard today.”
Sterling was picked eighth by the media and seventh by the coaches. Southwestern was picked ninth in both polls. Bethel and first-year coach Marty Mathis, who won a national championship last season as an assistant at Marian, was picked last in both polls.