THE McCARTY MIRACLE: E.T.A. 2003?

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
News surrounding the Tabor College football program is staggeringly good these days. That wasn’t the case when coach Tim McCarty took the reigns of a downtrodden program in 1999. The 10 years prior to his arrival, the Bluejays had won just 12 of 95 games. The program record was a pale 70-220-3.

Things were so bad, the joke at McPherson College was that losing to Tabor in football was grounds for automatic dismissal from the KCAC.

The low point may have been 1996, when an undermanned Bluejay team forfeited its homecoming game to avoid additional injuries and the humiliation of another blowout.

Those days are history.

The guard may be changing in the KCAC in 2003. Conference coaches can’t help notice the job McCarty and his staff have done in only four seasons.

Coming off an injury-ravaged 2002 season that saw Tabor compile only its second winning record in school history at 6-4, McCarty and the Bluejays have been tabbed as a legitimate contender for the KCAC championship, with a No. 2 ranking in the preseason poll.

One national publication picked Tabor College as the 17th best team in the nation.

How could such a dramatic turnaround occur in so short a time?

Most folks credit McCarty.

Now in his fifth year, McCarty starts this season with a 14-26 career record, which includes an 0-10 mark in his first season, a season in which the Bluejays, comprised of only 14 returning players and 36 freshmen, were outscored 627-77.

The landscape surely has changed from those days.

McCarty begins the 2003 campaign with close to 90 players on his roster, including 51 returning letter winners and 20 returning starters.

People who don’t know McCarty might think he comes into the season with a swagger, looking to avenge years of Bluejay frustrations and taking credit for the miraculous turnaround.

They’d be mistaken.

“Even with all the returning players, I don’t have an overwhelming feeling of overconfidence,” McCarty said. “But I do have a feeling of thankfulness those players that are here.

“I am very thankful for all the kids who have come and stayed with our program,” he added.

“We live in a society of instant gratification, and when these kid came here, we were really bad, but they stayed with it. It’s because of them and their commitment that we’ve been able to turn this program around.”

McCarty remembers his first KCAC media day when the other coaches boasted of 15, 18 even 20 returning starters.

“I just wished I could say something like that, and this year I can,” he said. “It marks a milestone for Tabor. I’m relieved and thankful.”

McCarty said football is comprised of offense, defense and special teams, and the whole is only as good as the sum of the parts.

Offense

All 11 starters return on the offensive side.

McCarty said the Bluejays’ offensive scheme adjusts to the opposition’s defense.

“We call it a multiple offense,” McCarty said. “We try to dictate what the defense does with our formations.

“We have a take-what-they-give-us mentality,” he added. “If they give us the pass, we’ll take it. If they want us to run, we’ll run it. We’re more of a fast-break offense and want to get the ball up and down the field.”

McCarty said he tells his players they really aren’t much different than a NASCAR racing team.

“Not everybody can be the driver,” he said. “You have to have someone put gas in the car, someone to change tires, someone to wash windows, and so on.

“The driver cannot win a race by himself,” he added. “Our quarterback has to be our driver.”

McCarty feels he has a more than capable driver.

“David Hernandez has been all-conference for two years in a row,” McCarty said. “Two years ago he was ninth in the nation in passing yardage and Tabor finished third in the nation as a team.

“He had his best spring ever,” he said. “A lot of that can be attributed to David knowing the system.”

Hernandez will be pushed by Bakersfield, Calif., transfer Ricky Ishida and reliably backed by Goessel freshman Ben Schmidt.

“This is the first time since I’ve been here we have depth at the quarterback position.”

Whoever “drives the car” will have an array of offensive weapons in his pit.

Receivers Tyler Marsh and Tyson Ratzlaff return after missing much of last season due to injuries.

“Tyler and Tyson are two of the best in the conference, if not the nation,” McCarty said.

Marsh (35 catches, 467 yards, four touchdowns) played just 20 quarters of a possible 40 last season, but still managed to earn first-team All-KCAC honors.

“Tyler is indispensable to us,” McCarty said. “He brings a heart to our offense that people respect.”

Marsh also returned 14 punts for 170 yards and a touchdown.

Ratzlaff was an honorable mention All-American in 2001, leading the nation in scoring as a receiver. But he played just eight quarters last season before breaking his collar bone.

“He’s a difference maker,” McCarty said. “We’ll play Tyson and Tyler on the same side, and the defense will have to decide whether they want to put two guys out there or three.”

Andy Strecker (5-feet 11-inch, 165 pounds), Jeff MacKinnon (6-3, 205), Mike Beach (6-3, 180), Peter Miller (5-8, 170), Luke Olsen (5-11, 175), Gates Graf (6-0, 170), and Layne Frick (6-4, 190) also return to the receiver position.

“We feel our receivers, as a group, are as good as anybody at our level in the nation,” McCarty said.

Speedy newcomers Matt Rorabaugh (5-11, 180), Tim Jones (6-0, 170), Vance Donahue (6-0, 165), Vance Frick (6-1, 180), Jared Holzrichter (6-0, 180), Garrett Bryant (5-8, 160) and Brandon Bockman (5-11, 180) will also figure into the receiving corps.

Cameron Conant (5-11, 195) and Dewayne Cleaves (6-0, 190) are the lone returnees at the running back position. Conant, an honorable mention All-KCAC pick, led the team in rushing with 490 yards, averaging 4.45 yards per carry.

“He’s a bull workhorse from Smith Center,” McCarty said. “He’s a pure, smash-mouth back that grinds it out.”

Brent Wichert (5-10, 180) and Justin Gibson (6-1, 205) add depth to the Bluejay running attack.

The offensive line figures to be another strength for the Bluejays.

Second-team All-KCAC left guard Richard Chandler (6-3, 300) anchors that unit. Right guard Kevin Wahl (6-5, 300) and left tackle Tyler Grantham (6-2, 260), both honorable mention all-KCAC picks, also return.

Returning starters Joel Odom (6-3, 330) and Ryan Martin (6-3, 310) complete the line.

Others vying for time on the will be Bobby Hurd (6-6, 325), Shrine Bowler Dan Raines (6-3, 285), Garden City Community College transfer Joe Hernandez (6-5, 270), Garrett Neufeld (6-1, 270), Joe Wuest (6-0 250), Matt Nichols (5-11, 275) and Thaine Kesler (6-1, 280).

Preston Neufeld (6-4, 250) honorable mention all-KCAC, returns at the tight end position.

John Garcia (6-3, 235) will push Neufeld for time along with Jeremy Olsen (6-3, 210), who’s returning from injuries.

“We’re basically four offenses wrapped up into one,” McCarty said. “We’re going to run the ball, we’ll play-action the ball, we’re going to throw the ball quick, and we’ll run intermediate combination routes. What wraps all those together is our formations.”

Defense

Tabor fielded the nation’s No. 2 defense in 2002, and nine players return to prove it wasn’t a fluke.

“Our strength on defense will be our speed,” McCarty said. “We’ll fly to the ball.

“Our defense is aggressive and it’s pressure oriented,” he added. “Having physical athletes just gets you into the arena, but what you do once you get there determines your success.”

Another key component is the ability to control the line of scrimmage. Tabor has the premier lineman in not only the KCAC, but in the entire nation to build around in Hillsboro alum Chad Duerksen.

The team’s only unanimous All-KCAC pick last season, Duerksen also was an honorable mention All-American and led the team with 14 sacks last fall (39 career total).

“Chad should have been the conference player of the year last year,” McCarty said. “He’s big, strong, fast, he can jump, and he’s intelligent.

“Nobody can block him.”

Joining Duerksen at defensive end will be Hillsboro’s Justin Friesen (6-2, 245), Keith Herl (6-2, 205) and Mike Onijala (6-2, 235).

Newcomers Chris Cook (6-3, 230) and Thomas Stevens (6-1, 235) figure to battle for time.

The inside will have Keith Schick (6-3, 285) and transfers Nick Hooper (6-4, 290), Rocky Avatongo (6-1, 290), Grant Myers (6-3, 285), and Chris Caughorn (6-1, 255) battling for game action.

Newcomers Don Zahn (6-0, 280), Cody Dick (6-2, 260), Matt Sahfeld (6-2, 275), and Ben Ottoson (6-2, 320) hope to contribute.

Honorable mention All-American Jason Phelps (6-1, 200) is the centerpiece of the defensive backfield at free safety.

Phelps finished eighth nationally in interceptions and has 15 over the past two seasons.

“I can’t say enough about Jason,” McCarty said. “He’s so intelligent, and his knack for the ball and his discipline are unmatched.

“No matter what happens, Jason gets our defense lined up,” McCarty said. “He’s a coach on the field.”

Hillsboro’s C. J. Hill (6-1, 200) returns to strong safety after an injury redshirt season, and honorable mention All-KCAC corner Jeremy Loewen (6-1, 175), also a Hillsboro grad, and Ernest Garza (6-0, 175) complete the defensive backfield.

“Loewen is another product right out of our backyard,” McCarty said. “He’s a big hitter, he’s intelligent, and he’s disciplined. Put that all together and it’s a hard combination to beat.”

McCarty said HHS coach Dustin McEwen should be given credit for developing so many quality football players.

“McEwen is a quality coach who understands the game,” McCarty said. “He was a great quarterback at (Fort Hays State) and he just keeps turning out great kids.”

Returnees Caleb Stanton (6-0, 185), Matt Insley (6-1, 185), Cody Kelly (6-0, 180), and Mike Davis (5-10, 170) will all vie for time.

Newcomers Brandon Hendrix (6-1, 180), Tim Stevens (5-11, 175), Keith Warkentine (6-0, 170), Luke Wiebe (5-10, 175), Robert Haude (6-0, 180), and Olando Harris (6-1, 200), who returns to defense after a stint at running back, add depth to a talented group.

The linebacker corps promises to be one of the strongest in the nation, according to McCarty.

Eli Kennedy (6-1, 215) and Jake Schenk (5-9, 210), both second-team All-KCAC performers last season, anchor the unit.

“Eli is one of our team leaders and loves to play the game,” said McCarty. “He’s our emotional leader on defense. We’re proud of what he brings to our program.

“Jake is a buzz saw,” McCarty added. “He’s probably the fastest player on our team. He’s explosive and will be an impact player this fall.”

Tracy Wehrman (6-1, 185) fills the remaining linebacker position. Wehrman was an NAIA player of the week in 2002.

Lee Waldron (5-11, 210), Caleb Mason (6-2, 225), Hillsboro’s Carson Greenhaw (6-2, 205), and Brian Durowaiye (6-1, 195) also return as linebackers.

Newcomers hoping to earn playing time at the position are Dan Hamilton (6-1, 210), Zach Coon (6-1, 190), Brian Lauridsen (6-2, 220), Kelly Smith (6-1, 190), Steve Chisholm (6-4, 195), Clint Reed (6-5, 210), and transfer Chris Williams (6-1, 225).

“Our defensive philosophy is simply to get the ball back as quickly as possible,” McCarty said. “That’s a completely team-oriented statement.”

Special teams

Heading the special teams this year will be second-team All-KCAC kicker Keenan Morris.

“He has excellent control of the ball on kickoffs,” McCarty said. “His 30-yard-and-in ball is very accurate.”

McCarty emphasizes special- teams play, and realizes games can be won and lost there.

“We feel that a kicker and punter will be the difference in two games this season,” McCarty said. “We work a minimum of 20 minutes a day on special teams.”

McCarty acknowledged punting was inconsistent at best for Tabor last year.

“Punting has been a troublesome spot for this Bluejay football team, but we feel we’ve addressed this through recruiting.”

Returning punters Tracy Wehrman, Keenan Morris and Brandon Hendrix will battle transfer Brian Kimsey for the punting duties.

Preston Neufeld returns for the long-snapping duties.

Coming so close to a great season last year didn’t go unnoticed by McCarty, his staff and the Tabor players.

“We know what was there last year, but we didn’t respond well to adversity (injuries),” McCarty said. “It’s one thing to sit here and talk about injuries, but you never understand what it means until it happens.

“Our team is better prepared for that this year, because we’re a much deeper team than last year.”

McCarty feels the strength of the 2003 edition of Bluejay football will be its depth.

“We feel we have over 50 players that can legitimately play for us,” he said. “Our sheer numbers will be a deciding factor.”

McCarty said it’s nice to be recognized in preseason polls, but he knows polls are only as good as the paper they’re written on.

“Polls are indicators, but the season doesn’t start until the 13th of September,” he said. “We’ll have a better idea how good this team is in November.”

McCarty said three things would go a long way in determining the KCAC title: staying focused, executing well and staying healthy.

If those three things fall into place, this might be the year the joke won’t be on Tabor, but on the rest of the KCAC.

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