Bluejays endure rude welcome to playoffs

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. It was the season of light, it was the season of darkness…. It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Tabor’s 63-21 loss in the first round of the NAIA playoffs to fifth-ranked Northwestern Oklahoma State University probably won’t gain notoriety as a classic such as Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities,” but to the diehard Bluejay fans, it will maintain historical significance as the school’s first playoff appearance.

On one hand, the Bluejays basked in the accomplishment of a 9-1 record, the most wins in school history and its first national playoff appearance.

On the other hand, the foe was the Rangers of Northwestern Oklahoma State, who led the nation in total offense averaging more than 520 yard per game, the 1999 national champions, and a team making its fifth consecutive national playoff appearance.

“We had watched the film and the kids knew what we were getting ready to face,” coach Tim McCarty said. “We knew what kind of athletes they had and we knew what kind of effort we had to have to achieve the levels needed to win that game.

“This was as good of an opponent as we could have possibly drawn.”

In Tabor’s 27-3 loss to Ottawa back on Nov. 1, it was Derrick Ward, an NCAA Division I refugee from Fresno State, who punished the Bluejays.

On Saturday, it was Patrick Crayton, who originally signed with Texas Tech, who shredded the Tabor defense to the tune of 395 yards of offense and 115 return yards.

After two years at Tyler (Texas) Community College, Crayton arrived at Alva, Okla., and has displayed his physical prowess the past two seasons for the Rangers.

“I promise you, he wasn’t a walk-on for very long,” McCarty said. “He was similar to Derrick Ward, except (NWOS) had about 10 or 15 Derrick Wards.”

The Bluejays might have shown considerable respect for the Rangers, but they sure didn’t show any fear.

On the opening drive, the Bluejays marched 60 yards in six plays and scored on a four-yard plunge by Ricky Ishida into the end zone just two minutes into the game.

Keenan Morris’ extra-point attempt banged off the upright, but Tabor had silenced the hometown portion of the 4,062 fans assembled at Ranger Field with a 6-0 lead.

“We had practiced that drive all week,” McCarty said. “Our first drive is always scripted and it went just like we had hoped it would.”

But Tabor had about three minutes to celebrate-or as long as it took the kickoff team to boot the ball to Crayton, who returned it 92 yards for a Ranger touchdown.

The extra point kick was good, and Northwestern Oklahoma was on top 7-6 with 12:40 to play in the first quarter.

“That didn’t help,” McCarty said. “You work hard, plan all week, get a good drive, and they immediately responded to it. That was difficult on our guys.”

But lightning was about to strike the Bluejays again.

With Tabor facing a third-and-seven on its next possession, quarterback Ricky Ishida’s pass was picked off in the flat by Bryan Franklin, who returned the ball 30 yards for another touchdown.

Less than four minutes into the game, the Rangers were on top 14-6, and their offense had yet to take the field.

Tabor was unable to move the ball on its next try, and punted to the Rangers.

The NWOS offense finally got its chance, and responded with a 12-play, 51-yard drive to boost the Ranger lead to 21-7.

Following the kickoff, the Tabor offense was forced to punt once more. Again, the Rangers responded with a touchdown drive, this one going 59 yards in nine plays.

The drive was capped by a Crayton pass of nine yards to Michael Salters, one of three such scoring connections for the day, and the Rangers had jumped to a 28-7 lead with 24 seconds left in the first quarter.

The Bluejays failed to move the ball again, but this time their fortunes would be reversed as Brian Kimsey’s punt was mishandled by the Rangers. Gatz Graf was there to pounce on the fumble for Tabor at the Northwestern 16-yard line.

An Ishida pass of 13 yards to Tyson Ratzlaff set up the freshman quarterback for a three-yard sneak for a Bluejay touchdown.

Going to the 2-point conversion, Cameron Conant tossed a jump pass to tight end Preston Neufeld. His juggling catch whittled the lead to 28-14 with 12:50 left in the half.

The Bluejay defense stiffened on the next Ranger possession, and forced a punt. The snap was mishandled by the Rangers and Tabor took over on its own 43-yard line with a chance to pull closer.

But four plays later, with the Bluejays driving, Ishida mishandled a center snap and the Rangers recovered the fumble-one of three fumbles the Bluejays lost on the day.

Northwestern went for the jugular and hit Tabor with a 55-yard scoring bomb to Salters on the first play, bumping the lead to 35-14 with 8:04 to play in the half.

“Every time we scored, they answered with two or three touchdowns of their own,” McCarty said. “We just couldn’t ever get a foothold at any time during the game.”

Northwestern put together one last drive in the half, driving 72 yards in 13 plays, and scored on a three-yard run by Wes Scott with just 23 seconds left on the clock.

“We knew going in it was going to take the full deal for us to pull this one off,” McCarty said. “But our kids fought hard and never quit. I was very proud of them.”

The Bluejays needed a good start to the second half, but on the third play from scrimmage, another Ishida pass was intercepted, this time by Jamaal Barnett.

Following a 33-yard pass completion from Crayton to Salters, Mike Tyson toted the ball the final 20 yards to put the Rangers on top, 49-14, just two minutes into the second half.

But Tabor found the heart that led them to nine wins this season, and pieced together a scoring drive of its own on the Jays’ next possession.

Ishida hit running back Tim Jones for a 19-yard gain and wideout Mike Beach for a gain of 23 yards, then punched the ball into the end zone from three yards to cut the lead to 49-21 with 10:02 to play in the third quarter.

“Our kids never quit during the course of the game,” McCarty said. “Northwestern was good and very talented. They didn’t have just one or two good players, either. They had a bunch of them.”

But NWOS once again answered the Bluejay score on its very next possession. Ten plays and 67 yards later, the Rangers scored on a 40-yard pass from Crayton to Salters to make the score 56-21.

The Rangers added their final score after Ishida was intercepted by B.J. Taylor in the fourth quarter. Crayton, still in the game with a 35-point lead, hit Sam Breeden from 19 yards out to make the final score 63-21.

“The one word that comes to mind when you talk about our kids is ‘accomplish,'” McCarty said. “I’m very thankful I was able to take a team like this to the national playoffs.”

For the day, the Rangers rolled up 511 yards of total offense-right at their season average.

Tabor, meanwhile, rushed for just 22 yards on 28 carries, and threw for 195 yards.

Turnovers may or may not have made a difference in the final outcome, but with the Bluejays giving the ball up three times on fumbles and three additional possessions on interceptions, their chance of defeating a national power on the road was nearly nonexistent.

“Our kids didn’t blame any one person or one thing,” McCarty said. “Even their coach said, ‘Your team has so much more class than some of the other teams we’ve played,’ and that makes us feel good.”

Marsh led the Bluejay receivers with three catches for 44 yards and Ratzlaff caught three balls for 39 yards.

The senior standouts completed their careers with 23 100-yard receiving games between, a feat accomplished just 20 times in Tabor history.

Ratzlaff also eclipsed the 1,000-yard mark for the season for the second time in his career, and only the third time it’s been done in Tabor history.

Marsh also rolled up 155 return yards in the game to help him erase the career all-purpose yardage record held by NAIA Hall-of-Famer Bay Lawrence.

Marsh finished with 4,749 yards compared to Lawrence’s 4,725.

McCarty said the manner in which the season ended will in not take away from the accomplishments his team enjoyed.

“Our kids know we had a great season,” he said. “It was great for our young kids, because now we know what it’ll take to get back here.”

McCarty said the fan support the Bluejays enjoyed all season did not go unnoticed.

“I really appreciated, and I can speak for our coaches and players, the tremendous support we had in Oklahoma and for the support all season.

“It helps when other people care with you. They showed that support, and we really, really appreciated it.”

The coach also reflected on what his team has done, as a whole.

“Our freshmen don’t know anything at Tabor College except that we’re a playoff team,” he said. “Our sophomores don’t know anything but winning, and our juniors haven’t had a losing season.

“Our seniors are the only class on this team that has experienced a losing season,” he added. “When you start thinking of it like that, you put in perspective exactly what was accomplished.”

McCarty said some rest and relaxation is in order for him, his staff, and the team before looking forward to next year.

“It was an absolute honor to be able to share this season with this great group of individuals,” he said. “I told our underclassmen they should feel privileged to have played with and learned from these seniors.

“But this year had made it a little bit harder for them,” he said. “We now have to win 10 games to be the winningest team in a season instead of just seven.

“The bar has been set a little bit higher.”

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