ORIGINALLY WRITTEN ERIC CLARK
For the last two years, the Tabor College football team has slowly but surely climbed the ladder of gridiron success.
Under the leadership of head coach Tim McCarty, the program moved from a long season of lopsided losses in 1999 to a competitive 3-7 in 2000.
And as the program rises, coaches, players and fans are looking for the Jays to take that next big step: a winning season record.
“I tell my players that it’s always darkest before dawn,” McCarty said at the KCAC Media Day in early August. “We don’t know what time it is in Hillsboro. We don’t know where we are in terms of the sunrise.”
McCarty said getting the program even to the point it is now has not been easy.
“This is my 18th year coaching football,” McCarty said. “The first 16 years seemed like it took one year, and last year seemed like it took 16.”
Highlights of last season were Tabor’s 14-7 upset win over perennial KCAC power Bethany College, and a blow-to-blow, down-to-the-wire battle with Ottawa University, the eventual conference champions before losing 24-14.
“Our program went through a lot of growing pains last year as we were trying to come of age,” McCarty said. “We had some good things happen to us at different points during the year.
“We felt like we ended the season on a strong note in terms of being competitive.”
Prior to the McCarty’s arrival, the Bluejays average 18 returning players from the end of the fall season to the beginning of the next season.
Last season, Tabor doubled that average. This season they will return around 50 players from their 76-man roster, a number that McCarty said is getting better every year because of their success and team mentality.
“The kids are eager to play,” McCarty said. “They have a great attitude and are bonding together very well. It’s just hard to say where we are going to be.”
At this year’s KCAC Media Day, the Bluejays were picked to finish seventh in the conference by league coaches, a climb of one-step from last season’s predictions.
“I’m never going to be happy with being picked where we were picked,”McCarty said. “But I wasn’t disappointed because I know the infancy of our program.”
Although young, the Bluejays return 10 starters on offense and one of the most prolific wide-receiver combinations in the KCAC. Senior Nathan Funk and sophomores Tyson Ratzlaff and Tyler Marsh help round out a talented receiving corps.
“They’re just outstanding players,” McCarty said. “Tyson is just an amazing athlete with great quickness and speed. Nathan is a solid receiver with great hands, and Tyler is one of our utility players who can really catch the ball well.
“I personally think, from top to bottom they are among the best in the country in terms of their ability.”
The biggest dilemma facing the Bluejays on offense this year will be finding someone to throw them the ball. Last season starting quarterback, Travis Davis, threw for 1,779 yards and 19 touchdowns as a freshman.
But Davis decided not to come back to school this fall, leaving the quarterback spot unfilled.
Two recruits will battle for the position. They are David Hernandez, a 6-1, 210-pounder from Junction City, who tested his athletic ability for the Kansas State Wildcats, and Willie Lopez, who threw for more than 7,000 yards during his high-school career at Garland, Texas.
“It’s going to be a two-horse race,” McCarty said. “They both have good arms and can really run if necessary.”
The Bluejays also will try to feel an obvious need at the running back.
“Our running game was non-existent last year,” McCarty said. “That’s why we did some unconventional stuff.”
Despite returning five starters from the offensive line, McCarty said he will be looking for more linemen and running backs among this year’s recruits.
Two of those running backs are Stephen Seaman from Garland and Brian Woodman from Denver, Colo.
Seaman, a 5-11, 185 pounder, ran a 10.7 100-meter dash this spring.
According to McCarty, the Jays’ kicking game will likely improve with the help of another Garland native, Jeremy Lehmer, a 6-1, 170-pound punter and kicker.
Lehmer averaged 41 yards per punt last season.
“The funny thing is, he is a whole lot better kicker than he is a punter,” McCarty said. “He’s one of those kids who will really help us from the special teams part of our game.”
On defense, McCarty is counting on last year’s sack leader, Chad Duerksen, to lead the way.
“Chad is a quiet leader,” McCarty said. “You almost have to pull words out of his mouth to get him to talk. But we look for Chad to have another solid year for us.”
McCarty also has his eye on three transfer players who arrived last spring. They are Carry Addison, a 6-2, 230-pound linebacker, Ryan Martins, a 6-3, 405-pound tackle, and Jared Richards, a 6-3, 215-pound defensive end.
Hillsboro native Jeremy Loewen, a 6-1, 180-pound defensive back, is expected to compete for a starting position as a freshman.
“Jeremy is a very good athlete,”McCarty said. “He’s really developed his game, we see him coming in and really adding a lot to our defensive quickness.”
That opportunity may have been aided by a knee injury to another Hillsboro native, C.J. Hill, who started last season as a freshman.
McCarty is anxious to see how his team will respond after last season’s 3-7 record.
“It’s really hard to say where we’re going to be,” McCarty said. “I think we’re just around the corner as far as taking that next step goes, but it’s just hard knowing how we’ll react after last year’s season.”
Tabor will open its season Saturday, Sept. 8, when they host Colorado College. Last year, the Tigers defeated Tabor 31-6 in Colorado Springs.