The Tabor Bluejays, ranked sixth in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference preseason poll, have their work cut out for them in the toughest KCAC line-up yet.
“As long as the conference stays strong like it is now, it’s going to be a climb,” said coach Mike Gardner, who is returning for the second year of his second stint at Tabor.
The Bluejays will try to improve on a 4-6 overall record and a 3-5 conference mark when they kick off their season Sept. 3 in a non-conference game at Lawrence against Haskell Indian Nations University.
Gardner said he is not concerned about statistical achievements right now as much as a healthy team mentality and the right combinations of players.
“We’re always concerned about focusing on what I?call ultimate team football,” said Gardner. “It isn’t centered on one particular player or one particular position group.”
He said putting too much on any one player sets the team up for failure if that player is injured.
“I’m trying to put an emphasis on guys who are willing to accept a role, play a role, and be able to perform that role to the best of their ability so we are able to handle the ball efficiently, and ultimately put ourselves in a good position to win.”
The Bluejays have the advantage of experience returning in some key positions.
“We have basically the entire offensive line back from last year, with the exception of one guy who graduated at offensive tackle,” Gardner said. “But we have two more who were in the program last year.”
He said the team will miss Andrew Herard, who graduated, at the running back position, but most of the running backs are returning.
“James Monroe is back for his sophomore year and he really had a good season as a freshman,” he said.
The Bluejays also have good news on the receiving end, with experience returning at the wideouts and the tight ends.
“We’re probably deepest at receiver,” he said. “We’ve got two guys coming back who did a good job last year.
“The kid I’m anxious to see develop is (tight end) Cordell Simmons. I think we’re going to get something out of him.”
The 6-foot, 4-inch senior from California averaged 7.3 yards per reception last season, with a total of 29 yards.
How the rest of the team steps up will be a deciding factor; the Bluejays will be mostly young and inexperienced in the remaining positions.
“We put an emphasis in recruiting on the offensive and defensive lines, and we’ve got some guys we feel can step in and play some defensive roles,” Gardner said. “But we’ll just have to see how that pans out.”
The quarterback position is going to be wide open, with three or four guys trying to earn that spot.
“Tim Rozzell and Ryan Stoutt are guys who did a good job in the spring,” Gardner said. “Mickey Polley could be in the mix, too. We’ve got a couple freshmen guys who are going to be looking to try to get something done too.”
On defense, Gardner said the secondary is going to be a critical area of the game.
The Bluejays have 5-11 senior Spencer Brown returning as a defensive back, but he has had trouble with injuries in the past.
“We’re just going to try and keep him healthy throughout the season,” Gardner said.
Brown had seven interceptions and went 49 yards with a fumble return last season.
Gardner said junior defensive back Antonio Goodsen has been steady, and he was looking foward to seeing what freshman defensive back Tristan Dillon-McCollum can do, especially as a strong safety.
“We’ve got some new guys coming in who are really going to push each other and push some returners in the secondary,” he said.
At linebacker, the Bluejays will be young and a little thinner than Gardner would like.
“It’s going to be up to our ability as coaches to figure out what best combination we can use,” he said. “We’ve got to do a better job of stopping the run this year.”
Tabor also will have to solve a special-teams conundrum when it comes to the kicking game.
Gardner signed two kickers, one out of Florida and the other out of Missouri, to compete for playing time. But the latter player will be having leg surgery.
“Aaron Annis is back as our punter and he can kick field goals,” Gardner said. “Anthony Pacheco is the other kicker who is hopefully going to be able to come in and score points for us.”
With all the changes and new faces, Gardner said the goal for the season is to start positively.
“I don’t think Tabor’s had a 1-0 start since I left, which was 2005,” he said. “So that’s going to be one of our first team goals, and then kind of play it from there. If we can get through October in pretty good shape, that’s going to be a telltale sign for me.”
Gardner said they plan to prepare for every game in the same way this season, and not emphasize one game over another.
“However, when you’re in a position where we are, where you’re trying to get something going, it’s nice to have the opportunity to put yourself in the position to have what I call a signature win,’” he said.
“Where that’s going to fall in the schedule, I don’t know.”
Gardner credited stability and great coaching as reasons for the strong KCAC lineup.
“Ottawa, McPherson, Sterling, Kansas Wesleyan and Friends—those top five are very good,” he said. “The other five have a chance to beat at least three of those five.“
Gardner said if he can retain his current staff, Tabor can eventually rise to that position as well.
“Ultimately, that’s where we want to be,” he said. “You have to be able to walk before you can run, you have to be able to run before you can sprint. We’re trying to figure out how to walk right now.
“It takes retention and it takes talent and it takes coaching, it takes persistence and it takes patience,” he said. “We’re just trying to find our way.”
Gardner said finding their way means focusing on the basics, finding roles players can embrace and not worrying about what they look like or what other people think of them.
“Being able to execute at a high level and do the things I believe we’re capable of doing is going to be something I’m anxious to see,” Gardner said.
“All I’m concerned with is how they are able to embrace their role, perform their role and do that for something that’s bigger than themselves.
“If we can do that, then we’re going to be on our way.”
Tabor’s first home game will be Sept. 24 against Sterling. The starting time will be 6 p.m.