The two coaches from the KCAC that guided their teams to the NAIA football playoffs might be as different a pair as the league has seen take the national spotlight.
On one hand, there’s Tabor’s Mike Gardner, a strait-laced, 48-year-old coaching lifer who has taken the tiny college in Hillsboro to new heights. In his first stint at Tabor, he guided the Bluejays to the first two playoff appearances in school history in 2004 and 2005. Now, in his second stint, he’s lead them to a KCAC title and into the postseason for the second time since taking over an 0-10 team in 2010. Tabor, which hosts Doane on Saturday, has done it by building a team with four-year players, a ground-bound offense and stifling defenses.
Then there’s Kansas Wesleyan’s Matt Drinkall, a former Iowa wide receiver who, at 33, is the second-youngest head coach in the country behind only Cornell’s David Archer. Drinkall, in his second season, built his team on transfers and has taken the professional wrestling world’s popular “New World Order” logo — the letters “NWO” on black t-shirts with white lettering — and turned it into a rallying point for the Coyotes, their sideline peppered with similarly-styled t-shirts with “KWU” across the front. The Coyotes put the ball through the air at a dizzying clip, led by senior quarterback Jake Curran, the KCAC Player of the Year, and play at defending national champion Southern Oregon on Saturday.
Different guys, similar results ... and a ton of mutual respect.
Tabor won the regular-season meeting, 14-7, on Oct. 17 in Hillsboro in what turned out to be the de facto KCAC championship game. Both teams finished the season 10-1, with Tabor No. 9 and Kansas Wesleyan No. 10 in the NAIA’s final poll.
“It’s good for our conference, it’s good for (Drinkall),” Gardner said. “Even last year, you could see they had a good plan in place. He just needed the pieces, and he got those ... they’re going to be good for a number of years to come.”
“I made a conscious effort, when I got the job, of exhausting every resource I had available,” Drinkall said. “And that meant every time I was around (Friends coach) Monty Lewis, (Sterling coach) Andy Lambert and Mike Gardner, guys who have all had success in this league, I took every piece of advice they gave me and used it to make us better. It was like a buffet line of information whenever I was around them ... just incredibly helpful.”
Kansas Wesleyan is back in the NAIA playoffs for the first time since 2002. Curran, a Garden City native and Garden City Community College transfer, was second in nation in passing with 3,242 yards and 28 touchdowns. On defense, the Coyotes are led by two-time All-KCAC defensive back Sequente Marks, a Wichita Southeast product who transferred from Friends to Kansas Wesleyan for his senior season.
“I’ve never been west of the Rockies, so I can’t wait,” Curran said. “If you want to be the best, you have to go play the best. We look forward to the challenge.”
Tabor is hosting, technically, its second playoff game. The Bluejays have the KCAC Offensive Player of the Year in quarterback Simon McKee, a Halstead native, and the KCAC Defensive Player of the Year in senior defensive end Dylan Delk, a Hillsboro native.
“The first time we hosted, in 2005, we had to move the game to Wichita State because we weren’t equipped to host,” Gardner said. “We didn’t have enough room for the fans or the media ... and 10 years later we have the facilities to host a game. What an amazing testament to the community and the college.
“We’ve had the ability to bring guys in here for four, five years and build up to those roles. To build up to become leaders for us.”
Other Saturday playoff games
No. 18 Emporia State (9-2) at No. 6 Minnesota State (10-1), 1 p.m.
Emporia State, the MIAA runner-up, goes to Mankato, Minn., for the opening round of the NCAA Division II playoffs. The Hornets are back in the postseason for the second time in three seasons and have made both appearances riding the play of senior quarterback Brent Wilson, the MIAA Offensive Player of the Year. Wilson can break Emporia State’s career passing mark with 242 yards and has thrown for 3,420 yards and 34 touchdowns this season. Minnesota State has the No. 2 scoring defense in the nation at 12.9 points.