If we had known then, what we now realize, the Tabor football team’s heartbreaker loss to Ottawa University earlier this season would have been even more bitter to the taste.
A turnover and a touchdown run in the final seconds of that game cost Tabor a berth in the NAIA national playoffs.
The No. 17 Bluejays fell just one ranking short of qualifying, tying in losses with Ottawa (two), but lacking just one win to tie with the Braves for No. 1 in the KCAC standings.
“It sure would have been nice to let the kids experience a play-off game,” said KCAC Coach of the Year Mike Gardner, who has been with Tabor for six of the Bluejays’ 11 winning or non-losing seasons since its conception.
Also receiving honors was Offensive Coordinator Billy Hickman, who was named KCAC Assistant Coach of the year after taking over the helm this season
“The way we were playing, the way we were executing on all three phases of the game, there is no question in my mind that we would be able to at least compete,” Gardner said.
“But, it is what it is, and it was a good year.”
The Bluejays finish 7-1 in the conference and 8-2 overall on their way to a season that set or broke 14 school records, including most season rushing yards by a 700-yard margin (3,380), most interceptions for touchdowns (five), fewest rushing touchdowns allowed (six) and most points scored by defense (38; six touchdowns, one safety).
“Unbelievable job,” Gardner said.
“Unbelievable. We had 41 take-aways this year. And that’s just the defense…You can’t make this stuff up.”
Tabor also set records for yards per play (5.9), yards per carry (5.6 ) and most rushing attempts (604), topping out No. 1 in the NAIA in rushing offense and fourth in scoring offense.
“To do all that and not get a play-off bid is just sad,” Gardner said, “but I understand it.”
Nonetheless, Tabor capped off their best season in recent years with a dominating 31-3 victory over conference foe Friends University Saturday on Senior Day.
Near gale-force winds that all but grounded the Bluejay passing game didn’t deter Tabor, which racked up 390 yards of offense against one of the best run defenses in the conference.
“It really affected us,” Gardner said about the wind conditions, “but Simon (McKee) did complete two balls, and both were key third downs. One was going into that wind.
“I’ve never coached in a game where it’s been 45-mile-per-hour gusts.”
Going into the game, Gardner said, the plan had been to utilize the Bluejay passing game to counteract the Falcon run defense. But with the high winds, they had to make adjustments.
After a stalemate first quarter, running back Brandon Johnson broke the drought with a touchdown scramble at 13:42 for the first points of the game.
Senior Tim Rozzell set up the score with a big play early in the drive, picking up a Bluejay fumble near the Tabor 30-yard line and running it all the way to the Falcon 23-yard line.
After a short punt into the wind was downed at the Friends 35, running back Nate Harrison punched in for the touchdown, but was called back on holding. Moments later Rozzell also appeared to score on the pitch play from quarterback Simon Mckee, but that play was also flagged invalid.
Tabor finally settled for a field goal from freshman kicker Joe Cannon, who was perfect on the day and set the school field goal and extra point records, making it 10-0 with just over eight minutes in the half.
Turnovers were once again the name of the game, and Daniel Krehbiel proved it as he got the fumble on the Falcon 30 that would convert to Bluejay points on an eight-yard touchdown run from James Monroe, Jr., to give Tabor a 17-0 lead going into halftime.
Friends earned their only points of the game to start the second half, kicking a field goal after Tabor held them to a fourth-and-four on the TC 24-yard line.
JP DeJesus snagged an interception with 5:49 in the quarter, running it back to the Falcon 17 to set up another Monroe touchdown scramble.
Tabor forced the Falcons four-and-out to start the final period, then took over at its 26 and drove downfield until McKee scored on the keeper at 5:27 for the final score, 31-3.
Monroe led the attack with 126 yards rushing on 28 carries for two scores, followed by senior Rozzell who had 105 yards on five carries.
McKee ended his sophomore season with 64 yards and a score on 19 carries, aided by Johnson, who had 35 yards and six carries for a touchdown. McKee had just two completions and 22 yards on five attempts due to windy conditions, but both catches came in critical third-down situations.
Senior Chris Sanborn set the standard with eight total tackles, including 1.5 tackles for loss, half a sack and a fumble recovery. Nik France and senior Josh?Murphy each had five tackles, with Terach Antoine and Anthony Daniel adding four a piece. France also forced a fumble, and DeJesus recorded the only interception of the game.
Graduating seniors include: Rozzell, Sanborn, Murphy, Korie Lewis, Mickey Polley, JoJo?Galvez, Moustapha MBaye, Nate Harrison, Tanner Giffin, Brad Prescott, Jacob Kerschenske, Andy Curtis, Jon-Michael Bergeron, Isain Garcia and Sean Giroir.
Gardner said these seniors exemplified spiritual, vocal and performance leadership in the way they carried themselves through difficult circumstances and owned their roles.
“Sometimes those roles are defined, and sometimes you define the role,” Gardner said. “That’s something that you can’t put a price tag on, especially with the older guys, when they embrace that role and the younger guys see that.”
He added that several seniors were very unselfish, especially running back Nate Harrison, who had 10 touchdowns for Tabor this season.
“I can’t say enough good things about him,” Gardner said. “There’s no way we could have done what we did this season without him.”
Other team school records set include: Most points in a game (75 vs. Bethel College), most completions allowed (37 at Saint Mary), most field goals (14) and most extra points (48). Tabor tied the season record for most interceptions (21).
Individual records include most season interception returns for touchdowns (France, three), as well as most season field goals (12), most season extra points (38), most season kick points (74) and most game kick points (21) set by Cannon. He tied the record for game field goals (four) and game extra points (nine).
“It’s nice for me to be able to see that we’ve turned the corner,” Gardner said, “and now we just have to stay there. And it’s not going to get any easier.
“We’ve got to find strength from some of the younger guys, and hopefully they will step up to those roles.”