ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Aretha Franklin sang about it, and Saturday afternoon in Wichita’s Cessna Stadium, the Tabor College Bluejays earned a ton of it: R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
With sixth-ranked Tabor’s 17-14 win over 12th-ranked Graceland, the Bluejays earned a spot in next Saturday’s quarterfinals against a familiar nemesis-the University of Sioux Falls. But they also proved the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference can no longer be considered a whipping boy.
“This is a great win for Tabor College and for the KCAC,” Bluejay coach Mike Gardner said. “It was a great win for all the other coaches in this league because it proves we are a competitive league.
“I’ve always said that,” he added. “It’s just another example of our conference being on a national scale.”
Tabor cornerback Tim Stevens, who was named “Most Valuable Player” in the game, agreed.
“This was all about respect,” Stevens said. “Everyone always says the KCAC is weak, but we proved them all wrong today. Everyone is calling us out and today we came to play and proved what kind of team we are.”
It didn’t take long for the truth of Steven’s statement to become evident.
Winning the opening coin toss, Gardner again deferred his option to the second half, giving the ball to the opponent to face a stiff north wind.
The strategy worked even better than Tabor hoped when Graceland’s Cedric Carmel had the ball ripped from his grip and recovered by Stevens at the Yellowjacket 31-yard line.
Five plays later, Ricky Ishida connected with Jeff MacKinnon across the middle for a 20-yard touchdown pass.
When Mike Skvor added the extra-point kick, Tabor led 7-0 only 2:03 into the contest.
Graceland’s next possession also resulted in a turnover, this time on a Joe Fenske interception at the Yellowjacket 25-yard line.
This break didn’t work out quite so well for the Bluejays, though, when Roger Butler was stopped on fourth-and-one, giving Graceland the ball at its own 19.
But once again the Bluejay defense rose to the occasion. This time they forced a punt that gave Tabor the ball only 51 yards from the end zone.
An Ishida pass to John Garcia chewed up 22 yards and Ben Brown followed with an 11-yard run. Suddenly, Tabor was 18 yards from scoring.
Butler took care of the rest, skirting the left side and cruising into the end zone for another Tabor touchdown.
When Skvor kicked the extra point, the Yellowjackets appeared to be the team that was stung, trailing 14-0 with 6:57 left in the opening quarter.
“That start was huge for us,” Gardner said. “It was critical. We talked about getting off to a quick start and I thought our kids just flew to the ball on defense.
“We mixed some things up on defense and I don’t know if it took them out of their game plan or not, but it sure did put a wrinkle in it.”
With the sizeable crowd roaring, the defense created another turnover two possessions later when Stevens picked off a Clayton Braddock throw and returned it 20 yards to the Graceland 45-yard line.
After Butler ran for 33 yards on first down, Tabor was tagged for a holding penalty and the Bluejays could not overcome it. But Skvor calmly drilled a 45-yard field goal to give the Bluejays a 17-0 lead as the first period ended.
Graceland finally mounted a sustained drive to begin the second quarter, taking the ball all the way inside the Tabor 10-yard line.
With the Yellowjackets facing first-and-goal from the 2-yard line, four straight plays yielded a negative one yard and Tabor took over at the 3-yard line.
Although the Bluejays were forced to punt four plays later, momentum continued to wear Tabor’s colors.
Graceland began its next drive on its own 45-yard line and again penetrated Tabor’s 25-yard line. But the Bluejay defense stepped up again, stopping the Yellowjackets on downs.
Nursing a 17-point lead with 2:22 left in the half, Tabor couldn’t convert a first down and punted the ball back to Graceland with less than a minute left.
That minute proved to be more than enough for the quick-strike offense of Graceland. Braddock connected with Adam Perry down the sideline for a 47-yard touchdown with 16 seconds left in the half.
Following a successful extra-point kick, Graceland entered halftime seemingly in control of momentum even though it trailed, 17-7.
The third quarter became a battle of field position as each team failed to cash in on opportunities.
Tabor dodged a bullet late in the quarter when John Ohm forced a Graceland fumble that was recovered by Justin Mathias on Tabor’s 15-yard line. The play thwarted yet another Yellowjacket penetration inside the Bluejay red zone.
Unable to move the football, Tabor punted back to Graceland with 11 seconds left in the period.
Once again, that proved to be more than enough time for Graceland when Braddock hit Anthony Ferguson in the corner of the end zone for a 37-yard touchdown. Tabor’s lead was reduced to 17-14 as the quarter ended.
Gardner said although the two long touchdown passes were costly, his defense played exceptionally throughout the game.
“If you break it down, they had a couple of drives, but we only really gave up those two big plays,” he said. “Other than that, I thought we defended them very well.
“Sometimes in big games, kids play a little faster than what they normally do, and I thought our guys did that today,” he added. “I thought we played with a higher intensity level.”
Only 15 minutes away from the first post-season win in school history, the Bluejays knew what they had to do to achieve it: control the football.
Tabor’s first drive covered 50 yards and melted 4:12 off the clock.
Then it was the defense’s turn. Robert Haude intercepted a Braddock pass to kill Graceland’s first possession of the quarter.
Tabor’s next drive chewed up 42 yards in 12 plays, culminating in a missed 41-yard field goal. But an additional 5:47 had elapsed, setting the stage for one last dramatic drive by Graceland.
Beginning on their own 24-yard line, the Yellowjackets had 3:08 to get within field-goal range or score a go-ahead touchdown.
A Braddock pass of 29 yards to Geary Davenport took the Yellowjackets to the Tabor 30-yard line, setting up a manicurist’s dream as Bluejay fans collectively chewed their fingernails.
Three incomplete passes later, Graceland faced fourth-and-10 with the game on the line.
Braddock settled into the pocket on fourth down. But when Tabor’s secondary left no available receivers, Braddock was forced to scramble
There to save the day for Tabor was Jake Schenk, Tabor’s all-time leading tackler. No tackle was bigger than the one he laid on the Yellowjacket quarterback three yards short of a first down.
“That tackle was unbelievable,” Gardner said. “I saw us break containment. For him to come up and make the stop on that kid was just a great desire play on Jake’s part.”
The Bluejays took over but it wasn’t quite over yet.
With 1:26 remaining, Tabor needed one first down to ice the game. And that’s just what they got on six-yard gain by Butler.
Celebration erupted as Tabor players and fans knew history was made as Tabor watched the final seconds tick off the clock.
“We talked about how football is a game of inches and today we got more inches than they did and ultimately we won,” Gardner said. “It’s one of those things that is special and you take with you forever.”
The Bluejay offense rolled up 315 yards-almost 150 below its season average-with 155 coming on the ground and 160 through the air.
Butler carried 26 times for 124 yards while Ishida completed 18 of 27 passes with no interceptions.
Defensively, Tabor allowed 245 yards through the air and 120 on the ground, but forced five turnovers.
Tyler McKim led the defense with 10 tackles followed by Schenk’s nine.
With the win, Tabor improves to 11-0 while Graceland packs its equipment with a record of 9-3.
In two seasons, Gardner is 20-2 and only one win shy of tying former coach Dan Thiessen (21-66) for second place on the all-time winningest coach list behind Tim McCarty (23-28).
“Our kids responded and played together so well all year, and this was just another example of that,” Gardner said. “Tabor College has a playoff win in the trophy case, what can you say?
“From nothing to something-my good friend Tim McCarty got off the floor, and then we end up having an opportunity to do something that no one else thought possible.
“And it happened.”
Coming- Tabor will return to South Dakota for a rematch with the University of Sioux Falls in the second round of the playoffs. USF ended Tabor’s season in the first round of the NAIA playoffs, 73-11.
Tabor will be trying to add more lore to the history books. No KCAC team has won two NAIA playoffs games.
Kickoff is set for noon.
The Tabor College Alumni Association will once again sponsor a pizza tailgate party, starting at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday outside the stadium in Sioux Falls.
Organizers of the event ask that those planning to attend R.S.V.P. by 8 a.m. Friday morning by calling 947-3121, ext. 1708 or by e-mail at email@example.com.