ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
The hardest thing about flying high is that you have farther to fall when you crash.
The Bethany Swedes brought the Tabor Bluejays down from the ethereal high of an undefeated season Saturday night with a resounding 57-24 grounding at Lindsborg.
The Bluejays scored the first three points of the game on Dylan Pohlman’s 22-yard field goal on Tabor’s opening drive. But the Swedes scored the next 57 points-30 in the second quarter alone-to shatter any notions of a second straight Bluejay upset or a Cinderella-like conference title run.
“It was a good reality check for us because we’re not ready for prime time,” coach Tim McCarty said. “As I told my coaches, the University of Kansas doesn’t go 2-0 and then drive over to Lincoln and think they’re going to role over the Cornhuskers.
“Bethany has earned a position on top. We haven’t earned it yet. We’re trying to earn it, but we got humbled.”
As tough as the loss was, McCarty said his team probably benefited from it.
“We needed that right now,” he said. “I don’t mean that in a negative sense. I mean that in a positive sense. The majority of my kids were saying after the game, ‘Coach, we got brought back to earth a little bit. This put things in perspective. We have to take care of business.'”
The Bluejays didn’t take care of business on this night, although they started strong.
Bethany came back from Tabor’s field goal with a methodical 80-yard drive in 12 plays, capped by an 18-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Mike Strack to Nick Pfannensteil with 4:31 left in the quarter.
But the Bluejays fumbled away the ball on their next two drives to set up Bethany for two more quick scores. When quarterback Willie Lopez was called for a safety for intentionally grounding the ball from his own end zone on the next possession, the Swede lead suddenly had mushroomed from 7-3 to 23-3 in less than three minutes.
“The wheels fell off the cart right there,” McCarty said.
Bethany added two more touchdowns before the halftime gun halted the debacle temporarily at 37-3.
“For some reason, we went into that game extremely pressured.” McCarty said afterward. “We were in unchartered territory. I’ll be honest with you, my hat’s off to Bethany. They played a perfect game almost, and we played everything but perfect. We were extra bad.”
The Bluejays endured some bizarre mistakes in the game, including a couple of “takeaway interceptions” by Bethany linemen who stole two passes, one from Lopez and one from his successor, David Hernandez, the instant the ball left their fingertips.
Bethany’s Strack, meanwhile, was a laser surgeon most of the night, dissecting an already wounded Bluejay secondary for 208 yards passing on 18-of-24 attempts. For the record, Tabor had three starting defensive backs-C.J. Hill, LaVon Smith and Tauron Smith-watching the game in street clothes because of injuries.
“We also had about seven other kids with injuries who play a lot but did not suit up,” McCarty said. “Two of our running backs went into the game dinged up, too. We were beat up, but we weren’t going to talk about that going in because we’re not going to make excuses for not getting the job done.”
The Bluejays did have a few bright spots with which to console themselves. One came in the second quarter, when Tabor’s Jeremy Loewen caught up with a Bethany receiver down field at the last moment and tipped a Strack pass into the arms of teammate Jason Phelps for the interception.
Another positive was Tabor’s strong play in the fourth quarter after the outcome of the game was long decided. Even though they were facing Bethany’s reserves by that point, the beleaguered Bluejays came back to score three unanswered touchdowns.
The first came on a beautiful strike along the right sideline from Hernandez to Tyson Ratzlaff, who caught the ball in perfect stride and ran it in for a 74-yard score.
The second touchdown came when Mike Davis blocked a Bethany punt and teammate Matt Insley scooped up the loose ball and ran it in from 15 yards out.
Tabor scored a third time on a two-yard quarterback keeper by Hernandez, capping a nine-play, 55-yard Bluejay drive with 3:39 left in the game.
A steady and strong south wind affected both teams offensively-74 of the game’s 81 points were scored by the team with the wind at its back.
“The wind was definitely a psychological factor for both teams,” McCarty said. “Every kickoff (with the wind) went out the back of the end zone.”
Tabor’s offense was limited to 75 rushing yards in 30 attempts and, apart from the long scoring strike to Ratzlaff, 46 yards through the air on a combined 6-of-24 performance by Lopez and Hernandez.
The Bluejays’ defense, which found itself starting with Bethany in great field position, gave up 101 yards rushing on 46 carries in addition to 282 passing yards by the two Bethany quarterbacks.
“I hate to say it, but the best thing we did in this game was that we didn’t quit,” McCarty said. “There were some individuals who did great, but as a team we didn’t quit.”
He said all the excitement surrounding his team’s 2-0 start made it hard to put this game into perspective at first.
“The bottom line is, we were picked seventh (in the KCAC),” he said. “We came out strong out of the blocks, and this team is going to get better every week. Our expectation is to finish higher than seventh.”