ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
A cold wind blew across the plains of Kansas Saturday, signaling the annual change of seasons.
That same day, the undefeated and 17th-ranked Tabor Bluejays traveled to Lindsborg, and blew through the Bethany Swedes, 41-12, on sloppy Phillip Anderson Field.
The Bluejay victory, signaling a change in the hierarchy of the KCAC, brought Tabor closer to its first football championship.
The game was never in doubt after the opening quarter, as the Bluejays offense rolled up 513 total yards-the second most in school history. Meanwhile, the stingy Bluejay defense held the Swedes to just 187 total yards.
“We never would have guessed our team would be as dominant as they were,” coach Tim McCarty said. “Our kids just responded and the other team didn’t-and we were glad about that.”
The game didn’t look like a blowout in the early moments.
Ricky Ishida’s attempted pass to tight end Preston Neufeld was tipped and intercepted by Mike Vernon with 13:25 to play in the first quarter-one of very few offensive mistakes Tabor committed.
The Bluejay defense took only one play to regain possession, though, when C.J. Hill pounced on a Dominick Tatum fumble on the Tabor 31-yard line.
Ishida put the ball into the hands of Cameron Conant on the ensuing drive, and the former all-conference back responded with 38 yards on seven carries before Tabor gave up the ball on downs at the Swedes’ 21-yard line.
Once more, though, the Tabor defense took just one play to reclaim the ball. This time Hill picked off a Jarrett Higgs pass with 7:26 to play in the quarter.
“It was good to see our defense get some turnovers,” McCarty said. “We’ve been working awfully hard all year and haven’t had the ball bounce to us.
“Those two early turnovers really set the tone for our defense the rest of the day.”
Back in control, the Bluejays called on Conant once more and the Smith Center senior answered with a 21 yards on four straight runs, scoring a touchdown with 5:30 to play.
Keenan Morris added the kick and the Bluejays led, 7-0.
“Cameron was hitting it pretty hard,” McCarty said. “We ran it right at them and he looked like the Conant of last year on that drive.”
The teams traded possessions before Tabor got ready to rumble again. With 12:33 left in the half, Tabor took over after a Swede punt on the Bluejay 45-yard line.
Tabor marched downfield in eight plays, climaxing with an Ishida pass to Tyler Marsh that covered the final 24 yards for the score-the first of five touchdowns Ishida would throw for the day. Morris added the kick and Tabor led 14-0 with 8:51 left in the half.
After Swedes forced to punt yet again, the Bluejays took over on their own 33-yard line. A combination of Ishida passes and Dwayne Cleaves runs moved the ball downfield until Ishida hit Tyson Ratzlaff with a 19-yard touchdown strike.
“Ricky is getting more and more confidence as the season progresses,” McCarty said. “Anytime you play in games and get live reps, you get better very fast.”
Ishida agreed with his coaches assessment.
“I’m a lot more comfortable than I was three weeks ago,” Ishida said. “I’m getting used to the game and the guys believe in me, so it’s a lot easier now.”
The 67-yard, 10-play drive gave Tabor a 21-0 lead as they headed to the locker room at intermission.
After a slow start in the second half, the Bluejays finally got rolling again following a Swede punt with 8:40 to play in the third quarter.
Four and a half minutes later, Ishida found Neufeld in the end zone from 11 yards out and the Bluejays owned a 28-0 lead. The drive covered 67 yards and took 13 plays.
Bethany had its only big play of the game on the next possession. Set at the Bethany 26-yard line, Higgs found Brett Bailey behind the Bluejay defense for a 74-yard scoring bomb. The kick failed, but Tabor’s lead was cut to 28-6 with 3:10 left in the quarter.
Undaunted, the Bluejay offense went right back to work at their own 41-yard line. Cleaves had the big play of this drive, a 22-yard sprint down to the Swede 2-yard line.
On the next play, Ishida threw to a sliding Ratzlaff in the end zone for the score to cap the seven-play drive. Morris’ extra point failed, but Tabor’s lead was back to 28 at 34-6.
Following a trade of possessions, Tabor started its last scoring drive of the day with 12:24 to left in the game. Beginning on its own 38-yard line, Tabor Kept the Bethany defense off balance with a mix of runs and passes.
“Bethany’s defense set the tone as to what we were doing,” McCarty said. “They were cheating linebackers, and if they did one thing, we did another.
“Ricky made some good reads and checked into the right plays,” he added.
Ishida eventually found Marsh open for a 30-yard gain, one of a school-record 12 catches the Elk City, Okla., senior had on the day, accounting for 196 yards.
With this outstanding day, Marsh went over 2,000 career yards in receiving yards, and compiled the fourth-best total for a single game in Tabor history.
“Marsh just had a phenomenal day,” McCarty said. “They were playing seven up front and four deep. The four backs were worried about our deep stuff so we just hit Marsh on underneath patterns.”
But on this drive it was Ratzlaff who hit paydirt for his third scoring catch of the day. The Hillsboro senior hauled in a perfectly thrown Ishida fade-pass in the corner of the end zone from 21 yards out.
Ratzlaff now has eight touchdown receptions for the season, third most in a single season for a Tabor receiver.
The play capped a six-play 62-yard drive. Morris added the kick giving Tabor a 41-6 advantage.
“We have a good crew of receivers,” Ishida said. “Marsh and Ratzlaff, if you get the ball to them, they’ll get some yards.”
McCarty said he was pleased with the Bluejay offense all day.
“Ultimately it comes down to us being able to execute,” he said. “Every defense gives you something. You just have to be able to find it and then execute.”
On the day, the Bluejays allowed just 187 total yard, 74 of which came on one play.
“Coach (Mike) Gardner had a great plan and the kids executed it really well,” McCarty said of his defensive coordinator. “We didn’t make a lot of adjustments. They had some tendencies and those played out in the game, barring one play.”
Bethany got one last chance to score when backup quarterback Ben Schmidt lost the handle on a pitch. The Swedes recovered that ball and ran it down to Tabor’s 1-yard line.
Even facing a Tabor defense of freshman and sophomore reserves, the Swedes needed two timeouts and four plays before scoring a meaningless touchdown with just 20 seconds left in the game.
“I was glad to see that,” McCarty said of the defensive stand. “They held their ground and did a great job to make Bethany take four downs to get just one yard.
“It’s what you want to see as a coach. It was all heart.”
Tabor’s victory was just the second win over the Swedes since 1984. It was just the sixth win over Bethany in school history, and it marks the largest margin of victory, ever.
Both Conant (115) and Cleaves (108) finished with 100-yard games, which was just the fifth time Tabor has had two backs over 100 yards in the same game, and the first time under McCarty.
Ishida connected on 18 of 27 passes for 258 yards, five touchdowns and just one interception.
“My timing still needs a little work, but we’re getting better each week,” Ishida said. “I just want to get better each and every week, have a good week of practice and go out and get the ‘W’.”
McCarty agreed the Bluejays are showing steady improvement.
“I think we’re getting better and better every game,” he said. “We’re seeing different situations every game and that’s important for us.
“We’ve gotten to the halfway point of the year, but we have a ton left to do.”
With the win, the Bluejays begin the season 5-0, the first time in school history a Tabor football team has won its first five games. It also ties a school record for most consecutive victories of six, dating back to last season.
It also keeps Tabor atop the KCAC, tied with Ottawa at 4-0.
Coming-Next week, Tabor will take on Friends for homecoming. The have a 2-2 conference and overall record.
“Friends knocked off Kansas Wesleyan this week,” McCarty said. “Monte Lewis (Friends’ first-year coach) stands for smash-mouth football.
“They like to come off the ball and butt you in the mouth and that’s what he’s always been about,” he added. “We’re going to play a team that’s well coached and can run the ball.
“I don’t think homecoming will be a distraction for us,” he said. “The kids are anxious to meet Bay Lawrence; it’s something we’ve talked about for a long time.”
Game time will be at 2 p.m. at Reimer Field; the ceremonial jersey retirement is scheduled for halftime.