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MNU, Valley top HAAC grid forecast

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Competition for the Vikings' starting tailback position is wide open, with sophomore Rahfee McClee (24) a prime candidate.
(Chris Allen/Democrat-News)
KANSAS CITY -- There doesn't appear to be much uncertainty as to which teams will battle for the 2011 Heart of American Conference football title.

In a pre-season poll among league coaches, defending champion MidAmerica Nazarene garnered all 10 first-place votes while Missouri Valley College -- third a year ago -- got nine of 10 ballots for second place.

Unlike a year ago, when the conference had five new coaches, only two programs are under new leadership. However, with the exit of perennial contender Lindenwood and charter member William Jewell to NCAA Division II, along with the entry of Peru State (Neb.) to the fold, there may have been some question as to how things would shake out.

That doesn't appear to be the case. Except for the Bobcats coming in at No. 7, the predictions followed the final 2010 standings -- with Baker and Benedictine duking it out for third place, Evangel favored over Central Methodist for fifth and Avila, Graceland and Culver-Stockton bringing up the rear.

Despite the coach's forecast, and No. 11 ranking in the NAIA pre-season poll -- also released Monday -- Vikings head coach Paul Troth is not sanguine.

"We've got some unknowns," Troth said Monday during the annual HAAC Football Media Luncheon at Kauffman Stadium, including who will line up in the offensive skill positions.

Tops among the vacancies is quarterback, where Chris White -- a third-team all-conference selection last year -- graduated after four years as the starter. Also lost was tailback Sterling Hayden, although sophomores Rahfee McClee and Keith O'Neil flashed considerable talent a year ago.

Nearly the entire receiving corps must also be replaced, although four of five offensive linemen return. Valley also has eight starters back from a defense which was tops in the NAIA in yards allowed.

"Our philosophy is pretty much the same," Troth said. "We're going to play good defense, be solid in special teams and are going to run the football."

The schedule, though, isn't kind to a squad which is going to have inexperience on offense -- despite home games the first two weeks. The Vikings open with a pair of league champions who were 10-0 during the regular season last year: No. 12 MacPherson from the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference and the third-ranked Pioneers.

MidAmerica has the opposite problem, having to replace most of its defense, including two-time all-American linebacker Jake Duren. The Pioneers have the league's top returning quarterback in junior Sean Ransburg and a strong backfield in juniors Greg Gates and James Tillman.

"The biggest question mark is how we're going to stop people," remarked second-year head coach Jonathan Quinn -- the former Kansas City quarterback who welcomes two other ex-Chiefs to his staff: Kimble Anders to mentor running back and Eddie Kennison to coach wide receivers.

No. 23 Baker also will have familiar faces on offensive, mainly needing to fill three positions on the line, but coach Mike Grossner feels "real good" about his defense.

"We were very young and are still young, but we believe we've got a lot more experience," he said.

Benedictine may be even younger, except for its staff -- headed by the "dean" of HAAC coaches, Larry Wilcox entering his 34th season at the helm. Although the 22nd-ranked Ravens "aren't going to beat anybody in a race," Wilcox believes they "have quality people coming back. A strength will be our depth."

It's the second year in charge for Brenton Illum at Evangel, and he considers it "the most fun I have ever had coaching." While there's not yet a clear-cut favorite among four quarterbacks vying to fill the open slot, the Crusaders' defense should be improved with the front six returning intact.

"We have a lot of guys wanting to get things done," Illum said. "I think we're a little ahead of schedule from what I thought we'd be."

The opposite may be the case at Central Methodist, where coach Alan Dykens thought ground would be gained following an encouraging 6-5 campaign in 2009.

"I thought we had turned the corner, but we had a rash of injuries," admitted Dykens, who lost 21 starters from last year's club. As for the coming campaign, "I'd say we're optimistic."

Peru State athletic director Steve Schneider, speaking for head coach Terry Clark, has been delighted with what he has seen so far from the HAAC -- which "welcome us with open arms."

Whether the Bobcats will enjoy such hospitality on the gridiron remains to be seen, but Schneiders believes that joining the four-state league "expanded our recruiting base."

Avila has a new head coach in Justin Bema, with a new staff to go along with that: including Marshall native Marcus Yokeley as defensive coordinator following post-graduate work at Lindenwood and Missouri.

"We're trying to totally change the culture at Avila," historically one of the loop's whipping boys, Bema asserted. "We've preached the idea of finishing, not only games and practices, but academics."

Jeff Douglas is in his second year of trying to turn things around at Graceland, which has won only six games the last three seasons. Douglas said he's not looking for a quick fix through the junior college ranks.

"We're trying to build a base around a high school foundation, so we'll be pretty young," Douglas conceded.

Then there's Culver-Stockton, where the coaching merry-go-around continues with the hiring of Eastern Michigan assistant Jeff Duvendeck in July. About half the Wildcats were expected to return, although the new field boss' focus has "been re-recruiting players."

For a program which had lost 32 straight games before a 38-33 decision at Graceland last October, a blank slate may be what's most needed.

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