Miracle in the mud

Last Monday, two days after his young football team endured a 54-7 shellacking from Bethel, a disappointed Tim McCarty sat in his office and quietly, almost grudgingly, admitted, “We need a miracle.”

On Saturday night, the Tabor head coach got a big one.

McCarty’s young but talented squad pulled off an improbable 14-7 win over Bethany College, the 16th-ranked team in the NAIA and the KCAC preseason favorite.

“It was meant to be tonight,” said McCarty as players, coaches and fans celebrated on a muddy midfield after it was over. It was not only a significant KCAC upset, but McCarty’s first win as head coach.

It also was Tabor’s first win over Bethany in 16 years.

Though McCarty’s team was outperformed on the stat report, they prevailed with grit, perseverance and determination on the one report the mattered most: the scoreboard.

Both teams played in miserably cold, wet and windy conditions, but it was Tabor who delivered the first bolt of lightning.

After the defense stopped Bethany on its opening possession, the Bluejay offense started its first drive on the Tabor 3-yard line. Two plays later, senior wide receiver Henry Cantu snatched a quick pass from freshman quarterback Matt Insley and raced down the visitor’s sideline for a 90-yard touchdown.

Dylan Pohlman kicked the extra point to give Tabor a 7-0 lead with 8:47 left in the first quarter.

Inspired by the sudden turn of fortune, the Bluejay defense shut down the Swedes on three plays, including, on third down, defensive end Chad Duerksen’s second sack of the night.

That set the tone for the entire night as the Tabor defense bent but refused to break against the talent and experience of Bethany.

The Swedes managed their only score early in the second quarter when wide receiver Levi Esses hauled in quarterback Craig Harris’s lob pass in the corner of the end zone. The score culminated an 88-yard drive aided by a controversial roughing-the-passer penalty against the Bluejays.

The extra point by Jason Liswood knotted the score at 7 with 13:15 to play in the first half.

The Bluejays got perhaps their greatest omen of what was to come on the second-half kickoff. The Bethany return man threaded the initial wall of Bluejays defenders and appeared to be on his way to a go-ahead touchdown. But a Bluejay defender caught the runner, the ball popped loose, and Derrick Roberson recovered it for Tabor on their own 29-yard line.

“We knew right then that we were in the good favor of the Lord this night,” McCarty said. “We just knew it.”

An inspired Bluejay defense, stopped Bethany on three plays on the Swedes’ next two possessions.

After the second stop, a wind-muffled punt gave Tabor the ball on its own 39-yard line. The Bluejays then drove to the Bethany 28.

Facing a third-and-one, quarterback Shaun Craft, substituting for an injured Insley, handed off to runningback Mike Rogers. The 245-pound juco transfer started inside, bounced off tacklers to the outside, then rumbled down the right sideline and into the end zone.

“He broke their back,” McCarty said. “It’s what our team needed to see-a guy working hard. We don’t run a lot of 2-back formations, but he got in and when his jersey was called, he made the play and rallied our troops.”

Pohlman’s kick made it 14-7 with 6:30 left in the third quarter.

Tabor almost extended its lead by three, but Pohlman’s field goal attempt from 38 yards out just missed. The scoring opportunity was set up by an incredible catch by Hillsboro freshman Tyson Ratzlaff, who caught a pass falling backward between three Bethany defenders for a 25-yard gain.

Meanwhile, the Tabor defense, smelling blood, carried the Bluejays the rest of the way. Twice in the fourth quarter, Bethany started drives in Tabor territory, but the defense refused to break.

As the Bluejay offense ran out the final 24 seconds of the game, players, coaches and fans flooded the field in celebration.

Duerksen’s performance earned him KCAC honors as defensive player of the week. The HHS grad was credited with five solo tackles and two assists, including one tackle-for-a-loss, one quarterback sack and a fumble recovery.

For McCarty, the miracle his program needed was not just the win, but the assurance for his players that they could win.

“We’ve worked so hard, we’ve been through a lot,” he said. “It’s been hot, we’ve had some distractions, but they kept their focus. They know we’ve got players here, we just need to stay with the program. These wins are great, but we’ve got a long season, and we’ve got a lot to do yet.”

The Bluejays will host Friends at 1:30 p.m. on Saturday.

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