State Colleges

Football 2015: A look at the KCAC

Friends linebacker Moses Tili sacks Bethany quarterback Virgil Bridges last season at Adair-Austin Stadium.
Friends linebacker Moses Tili sacks Bethany quarterback Virgil Bridges last season at Adair-Austin Stadium. The Wichita Eagle

Tony Adame looks at the KCAC, in predicted order of finish

1. Ottawa

Coach: Kent Kessinger, 12th season, 75-45

2014: 9-3, 8-1 KCAC

Outlook: Kessinger, the son of legendary Bethany coach Ted Kessinger, has turned the No. 14 Braves into a national power over the last decade. Last season, Ottawa won its fourth KCAC title in the last six seasons and has been to the NAIA playoffs six straight seasons. In 2014, the Braves won eight straight KCAC games to close out the regular season.

Ottawa will have its work cut out for it on the offensive side of the ball, where they have a new coordinator in former Pittsburg State All-American quarterback Neal Philpot and lose 48 of 55 touchdowns from last season. Gone is second-team All-American running back Luke Lundy and quarterback Michael Behr. Last year’s backup, Dayton Walter, should step into Behr’s shoes, while senior running back and Paola native Tanner Staats (259 rushing yards, 3 touchdowns), will be counted on to replace Lundy.

Schedule: Saturday, Dakota Wesleyan, 2 p.m.; Sept. 19, Tabor, 6 p.m.; Sept. 26, at Bethany, 6 p.m; Oct. 3, Bethel, 6 p.m.; Oct. 10, at McPherson, 2 p.m.; Oct. 17, Saint Mary, 1 p.m.; Oct. 24, at Sterling, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 31, Southwestern, 1 p.m.; Nov. 7, Kansas Wesleyan, 1 p.m.; Nov. 14, at Friends, 1:30 p.m.

2. Friends

Coach: Monty Lewis, 13th season, 85-39

2014: 8-3, 7-2

Outlook: It’s been six seasons since the No. 21 Falcons’ last KCAC title, in 2008, and they seem to be trending upward with back-to-back second-place finishes in the KCAC after spending several years in the middle of the pack. This group looks like it has the depth to contend for a title if it can find an answer at quarterback, where senior Kris Denton and sophomore Brett Darling will battle for the starting spot.

A pair of Maize South products who earned second-team All-KCAC honors are back on both sides of the ball. Junior running back Jesse Rogers led Friends with 717 rushing yards, but only scored two touchdowns and has yet to prove he can catch the ball out of the backfield. Sophomore linebacker Josh Lewis (6-1, 220), the coach’s son, came out of nowhere in 2014 to lead the Falcons with 95 tackles and forms a dynamic front with senior defensive lineman and All-KCAC pick Mason Pauly.

Schedule: Saturday, Nebraska Wesleyan, 6 p.m; Sept. 12, at Southwest Baptist, 7 p.m.; Sept. 19, at Saint Mary, 7 p.m.; Sept. 26, at Sterling, 7 p.m.; Oct. 3, Southwestern, 3 p.m.; Oct. 10, at Kansas Wesleyan, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 17, McPherson, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 24, Tabor, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 31, at Bethany, 1:30 p.m.; Nov. 7, at Bethel, 1:30 p.m.; Nov. 14, Ottawa, 1:30 p.m.

3. Tabor

Coach: Mike Gardner, sixth season, 32-22

2014: 7-4, 5-4

Outlook: The Bluejays rose to No. 3 in the country last season after a 4-0 start — then the wheels came off. Two of Tabor’s four losses were to teams with sub-.500 records. One of those losses was the only win for last-place Southwestern as the Bluejays ultimately finished fourth in the KCAC. This season could have a decidedly different outcome with a dearth of experience back.

Tabor has 16 starters back — seven on defense and nine on offense — including eight players who were second-team or honorable mention All-KCAC. On defense, the problem will be replacing the entire defensive backfield. On offense, the problem will be finding a quarterback despite having a part-time starter back in Simon McKee. Gardner said Tabor will have eight (eight!) quarterbacks in camp competing for the starting spot, with several likely to switch positions as camp progresses.

Schedule: Aug. 29, at Lyon; Saturday, Northwestern, 7 p.m.; Sept. 19, at Ottawa, 6 p.m.; Sept. 26, Saint Mary, 7 p.m.; Oct. 3, at Sterling, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 10, Southwestern, 7 p.m.; Oct. 17, Kansas Wesleyan, 2 p.m.; Oct. 24, at Friends, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 31, at McPherson, 1 p.m.; Nov. 7, Bethany, 1:30 p.m.; Nov. 14, Bethel, 1:30 p.m.

4. Sterling

Coach: Andy Lambert, 12th season, 65-49

2014: 7-4, 7-2

Outlook: Lambert is coming off the best back-to-back seasons of his career, with Sterling’s first KCAC title in 2013 and a runner-up finish last season. The Warriors’ biggest obstacle to keep that success going will be replacing the two players that made most of it possible — quarterback Reggie Langford and do-everything offensive weapon Antonio Bray, who combined for almost 4,000 yards of total offense and 45 touchdowns.

Sterling has six starters back on both sides of the ball. Senior wide receiver Dentton Hudspeth was a second-team All-KCAC pick last season and was second on the Warriors with 933 all-purpose yards and 11 touchdowns. The Warriors could have a potential star in sophomore defensive back Ray Winfield (6-2, 200), a San Antonio native who led the team with 76 tackles and five interceptions as a freshman.

Schedule: Saturday, Morningside, 1 p.m.; Sept. 19, at Kansas Wesleyan, 6 p.m.; Sept. 26, Friends, 6 p.m.; Oct. 3, Tabor, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 10, at Bethany, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 17, at Bethel, 1;30 p.m.; Oct. 24, Ottawa, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 31, at Saint Mary, 1 p.m.; Nov. 7, at McPherson, 1:30 p.m.; Nov. 14, Southwestern, 1:30 p.m.

5. Saint Mary

Coach: Jay Osborne, second season, 4-7

2014: 4-7, 4-5

Outlook: Osborne and the Spires get a big leg up this fall with the opening of Berkel Stadium, part of a $7 million athletic facility on Saint Mary’s campus, though it won’t be available until October. There’s a solid group back on both sides of the ball with six returning starters on offense and six on defense. However, seven players who earned some type of All-KCAC recognition are gone, inlcuding running back Will Ryan, the school’s career rushing leader.

Junior defensive back Kenny Nez, a second-team All-American, is the conference’s only returning All-American. Nez (5-10, 175) led the KCAC with seven interceptions and was second on the Spires with 83 tackles. Alongside Nez in the secondary are four-year starters Josh Gittens and Jos Cabezas.

Schedule: Aug. 29, at Mayville State, 1 p.m.; Sept. 5, Briar Cliff, 7 p.m.; Sept. 19, Friends, 7 p.m.; Sept. 26, at Tabor, 7 p.m.; Oct. 3, Bethany, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 10, at Bethel, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 17, at Ottawa, 1 p.m.; Oct. 24, McPherson, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 31, Sterling, 1 p.m.; Nov. 7, at Southwestern, 1:30 p.m.; Nov. 14, at Kansas Wesleyan, 1:30 p.m.

6. Kansas Wesleyan

Coach: Matt Drinkall, second season, 2-9

2014: 2-9, 2-7

Outlook: Drinkall has already committed to a two-quarterback system for the entire season despite the return of Garden City native Jake Curran (6-3, 210), a senior who threw for 2,932 yards, 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions on the way to honorable mention All-KCAC honors. Curran will split time with sophomore transfer Kelly Cordova (5-9, 193), who threw for 333 yards and rushed for 335 yards last season at McPherson.

All-KCAC tight end Mitch Kufahl, who had 44 receptions for 739 yards and three touchdowns, returns as a main target. Defensively, Friends transfer Sequente Marks, an All-KCAC pick, should be one of the best DBs nationally. He had six interceptions for 167 return yards and one touchdown in 2014.

Schedule: Aug. 29 at Waldorf, 7 p.m.; Sept. 5, Midland, 6 p.m.; Sept. 19, Sterling, 6 p.m.; Sept. 26, at Southwestern, 6 p.m.; Oct. 3, McPherson, 6 p.m.; Oct. 10, Friends, 3 p.m.; Oct. 17, at Tabor, 2 p.m.; Oct. 24, at Bethany, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 31, Bethel, 1:30 p.m.; Nov. 7, at Ottawa, 1:30 p.m.; Nov. 14, Saint Mary, 1:30 p.m.

7. Bethany

Coach: Paul Hubbard, first season

2014: 7-4, 5-4

Outlook: Hubbard, a longtime assistant at MidAmerica Nazarene, spent last season as the defensive coordinator at Midland. Leading rusher Jasaan Eley returns after running for 760 yards and eight touchdowns in 2014.

Quarterback Virgil Bridges returns, as does All-KCAC offensive lineman Brooks Porter (6-2, 280). The Swedes have a big advantage on special teams with the return of punter Brett Crome and kicker Adam Maish.

Schedule: Sept. 5, at Houston Baptist, 7 p.m.; Sept. 12, Langston, 7 p.m.; Sept. 19, at Bethel, 7 p.m.; Sept. 26, Ottawa, 6 p.m.; Oct. 3, at Saint Mary, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 10, Sterling, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 17, at Southwestern, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 31, Friends, 1:30 p.m.; Nov. 7, at Tabor, 1:30 p.m.; Nov. 14, McPherson, 1:30 p.m.

8. Bethel

Coach: Morris Lolar, first season

2014: 3-8, 2-7

Outlook: Lolar, a two-time All-American at Friends, has had success as a coach with a professional indoor team, the Wichita Wild, but this is his first head-coaching job on the collegiate level. Lolar spent last season as the defensive coordinator at Independence Community College. Although the Pirates finished 0-10, they ranked No. 5 in the Jayhawk Conference in total defense. Former East and Friends coach Brian Byers is one of Lolar’s assistants.

The Threshers’ 3-8 record last season represented their highest win total in the last five seasons. Bethel has an All-American candidate in senior wide receiver Gregory Parham (6-2, 190), a second-team All-KCAC pick who led the team with 476 receiving yards and five touchdowns in nine games. Parham’s best game came against KCAC champion Ottawa, when he racked up 108 receiving yards.

Schedule: Sept. 5, Hastings, 6 p.m.; Sept. 19, Bethany, 7 p.m.; Sept. 26, at McPherson, 7 p.m.; Oct. 3, at Ottawa, 6 p.m.; Oct. 10, Saint Mary, 7 p.m.; Oct. 17, Sterling, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 24, at Southwestern, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 31, at Kansas Wesleyan, 1:30 p.m.; Nov. 7, Friends, 1:30 p.m.; Nov. 14, at Tabor, 1:30 p.m.

9. Southwestern

Coach: Brad Griffin, first season

2014: 1-10, 1-8

Outlook: Griffin takes over a program mired in a decade-long, downward spiral after spending the last 11 seasons as an assistant at William Penn. Griffin, who played for Minnesota coach Jerry Kill at Emporia State, will try to turn around the fortunes of a program that hasn’t had a winning season since 2002, has two one-win seasons in last decade and set the school single-season record for losses with 10.

The Moundbuilders, who don’t have a single player from Wichita on their roster, return senior quarterback Tyler Crandall after he led the KCAC with 15 interceptions and completed 90 of 250 passes for 1,002 yards and six touchdowns — the worst season for a full-time starter in the league. One bright spot is the return of All-KCAC linebacker Eric Walker (5-11, 225), an All-American candidate who led the KCAC with 148 tackles.

Schedule: Aug. 29, at Wayland Baptist, 6 p.m.; Sept. 5, Concordia, 6 p.m.; Sept. 19, McPherson, 6 p.m.; Sept. 26, Kansas Wesleyan, 6 p.m.; Oct. 3, at Friends, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 10, at Tabor, 7 p.m.; Oct. 17, Bethany, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 24, Bethel, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 31, at Ottawa, 1:30 p.m.; Nov. 7, Saint Mary, 1:30 p.m.; Nov. 15, at Sterling, 1:30 p.m.

10. McPherson

Coach: Paul Mierkiewicz, first season

2014: 4-7, 4-5

Outlook: Mierkiewicz, who led Hastings to two NAIA playoff appearances in 11 seasons, is the fifth Bulldogs’ coach in six seasons and follows Steve Fox, who lasted one year. McPherson hasn’t had a winning season since going 10-1 in 2010 and winning the only KCAC title in school history.

The Bulldogs do have something to build on offensively with three returning starters on the offensive line with Collin French, Jaelon Barnes and Calon Bibbs. French, a McPherson native, was a second-team All-KCAC pick last season and Bibbs was honorable mention. The biggest issue for McPherson will be establishing team chemistry — Mierkiewicz brought back 30 players and brought in 60 newcomers.

Schedule: Sept. 5, Doane, 7 p.m.; Sept. 19, at Southwestern, 6 p.m.; Sept. 26, Bethel, 7 p.m.; Oct. 3, at Kansas Wesleyan, 6 p.m.; Oct. 10, Ottawa, 2 p.m.; Oct. 17, at Friends, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 24, at Saint Mary, 1:30 p.m.; Oct. 31, Tabor, 1 p.m.; Nov. 7, Sterling, 1 p.m; Nov. 14, at Bethany, 1 p.m.

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