ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Even though he lost one of his key recruiters at a crucial point in the process, Tabor football coach Tim McCarty feels the quality of players he has signed this spring will move his program another step closer to success in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference.
“We’re fortunate to be bringing in some really great kids into the program,” said McCarty, who released a list of 37 signees last week.
“Last year’s class was pretty good,” he said. “But I think we’re close in quality this year. Our top-end players are just as good as we had last year.”
Success on the recruiting trail didn’t come easily this year for McCarty, who is in his third season as head coach.
A key member of his staff, offensive coordinator Kent Keith, resigned in December to take the head coaching job at Independence Community College. His replacement, Mike Gardener, wasn’t hired until late February.
That left McCarty almost flying solo for about two and a half critical months. And it took a toll on him.
“This year was probably the hardest yet,” he said. “I just couldn’t be everywhere I wanted to be. If I saw a kid 10 times last year, I saw him maybe only five times this year. But we got some really good kids.”
One advantage this year was that McCarty wasn’t desperate when he began the recruiting season. He expects 53 players to return from last year’s squad of 76.
“We actually had a depth chart going into the recruiting season,” he said. “We were in pretty good shape going in, which meant we got to recruit position-specific.”
One of McCarty’s key needs was quarterback. Last year’s starter, Travis Davis, who threw for 1,779 yards and 19 touchdowns as a freshman, won’t be back this fall.
Newcomers expected to battle for that spot are David Hernandez, a 6-1, 210-pounder from Junction City by way of Kansas State, and possibly Willie Lopez, who threw for more than 7,000 yards during his high school career in Garland, Texas.
A third recruit, Valentine Leppert, may be the biggest catch of them all, McCarty said. Leppert, a native of Germany, has been playing club ball in his homeland and responded to an Internet posting from Tabor.
“Basically, we put out a message on the European club football scene for anyone who might be interested in earning a college degree and playing football in the United States,” McCarty said. “We’ve seen him on film, and he is a real good quarterback.
“We’re going to have some controversy at that position (this fall),” he said. “But we need some controversy there. We can’t have just one guy. We need somebody with some ants in his pants.”
Another critical need McCarty feels he has addressed is the running game. He sees hope that his young starting offensive line from last year will be more mature, but he also recruited some additional linemen and running backs.
One of those backs, Stephen Seaman from Garland, is 5-11, 185 pounds and ran a 10.7 100 meters this spring. McCarty also likes what he’s seen in Brian Woodman, a 6-1, 180-pound back out of Denver, Colo.
“He has a chance to be a very good player for us,” McCarty said.
A third recruit out of Garland may solve the Bluejays’ problems last season in the kicking game. Jeremy Lehmer, at 6-1, 170, averaged right at 41 yards per punt last season.
“He’s even a better kicker than he is a punter,” McCarty said. “He’s just got a good leg.”
On the defensive side, McCarty likes three transfers who came to Tabor already for the spring semester from Loranger, La., where former assistant Ed Rigby coached. The three are Carry Addison, a 6-2, 230-pound linebacker, Ryan Martin, a 6-3, 405-pound tackle, and Jared Richards, a 6-3, 215-pound, defensive end.
He also singled out Lavon Smith, a 6-2, 200-pound defensive back from California.
“He was a blue-chip All-American in high school,” McCarty said. “He’s basically transferring from Fresno State. He’s a wood-layer. He’s a big, tough player.”
McCarty said Smith became disenchanted at Fresno State, left the program for three years of military service, then came back to play junior college ball last season in California.
But McCarty is most excited about signing a recruit he didn’t have to travel far to find: Jeremy Loewen, a 6-1, 180-pound defensive back who graduated this spring from Hillsboro High School.
“He’s gotten a lot of awards in high school and he’s playing in the Shrine Bowl,” McCarty said. “He’s extremely mature for his age and well focused. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t come in and compete for a starting position at corner back. We’re extremely excited about him.”
Another recruit with local ties is Damien Ratzlaff, who, at 6-1, 215 pounds, returns to the football field for the first time since graduating from Hillsboro High School in 1991.
“He’s going to have some rust on him,” McCarty said. “But he wants to get a college degree and he wants to play football. He’ll help us.”
If in no other area, Ratzlaff will bring additional maturity to a squad that still will be pretty young. McCarty will have only five seniors this fall-but that’s more than double what he had last season.
“We’re still a young team,” he said.
The tide is changing, though, thanks to strong retention the past two years. McCarty’s 53 returners-assuming they come back as they indicated-will be a record in the 34-year history of the program.
“We’re not doing anything special,” McCarty said. “It’s the character of the kids. We’ve got kids who I think are focused. I think they are intent on graduating from college, which has been a basic point with us. And they’re mixing in with the rest of the college campus, which I think is very important.”
McCarty said his team’s improvement to 3-7 last season was helpful in recruiting, as was the addition of a state-of-the-art weight room and new offices for the coaching staff this past year.
But McCarty said the best selling point was his current players, who met with recruits when they came for a campus visit and guided them around campus.
“They were just very positive, and they worked very hard,” he said. “They were open about our weaknesses, but really focused on our positives.”
McCarty said the physical quality of his returning players for the first time became an issue for some recruits.
“For the first time, I had kids questioning whether they can come out here and play,” he said. “It’s just the opposite, really. We’re not where we want to be yet. We had some young guys who started last year. Some of those guys will lose their jobs to this class. There’s at least a dozen guys in this class who can really get it on.”