The former group are the four programs which have had relative coaching stability over the past few seasons and are consistent title contenders. The lowest vote total in the pre-season poll released Tuesday during the HAAC Media Luncheon at Kauffman Stadium for defending co-champions MidAmerica Nazarene and Missouri Valley -- along with Baker and Benedictine -- is 78 points (below).
There's a whopping 27-point margin before the No. 5 spot held by Evangel, which begins its third-year under head coach Brenton Illum. That's the longest term among the leaders of the rest of the teams.
Each coach has distinct plans for building his program, with Graceland (1-9, 1-8 HAAC) -- picked to finish 10th -- taking the methodical approach of developing high school players.
"This is our second recruiting class, and our biggest," noted third-year coach Jeff Douglas. "Judging from the way they worked during the spring, and hopefully over the summer, they look pretty good."
Jeff Duvendeck of Culver-Stockton (1-10, 1-8) is starting to get a handle on his club, although will still have to grapple with inexperience.
"I feel I'm not swimming as much as last year," Duvendeck noted, a theme which would be repeated by some other young coaches. "We had a lot of turnover, so you're going to see a lot of new faces on the field."
Peru State (2-8, 2-7) begins its second season in the league, but it will be the first one coach Steve Schneider.
"This is sort of a transition year for us," he said. "We've got great kids with great work ethics."
During his first campaign at Avila (4-6, 4-5), Justin Berna saw steady improvement from the beginning to end -- the Eagles winning four of their last five games.
"What a difference a year makes," he declared. "We focused on recruiting locally and went after the players we've never gotten before, like two ... from [Class 6 power] Rockhurst."
Newly-promoted head coach Jody Ford is the beneficiary of the gains made over four years at Central Methodist (5-5, 5-4) under his former boss, Alan Dykens. Still, cracking into the league's elite is a challenge.
"I don't know how we're going to be," Ford said. "Everybody here has a great football team."
Illum's Crusaders (3-7, 3-6) are on the cusp, even after a disappointing 2011 season. However, working with 18 returning starters makes the prospects brighter.
"This is the most fun I've ever had coaching," Illum remarked. "The long-range plans are coming into fruition."
No coach is more aware of the value of continuity than the dean of HAAC coaches, Larry Wilcox having guided Benedictine (9-3, 7-2) for 34 years -- and assistants who have over a century of combined tenure with the Ravens.
"Our staff has been together for a long time, which is a great strength," Wilcox said. "That creates a great deal of stability."
Benedictine was one of the league's three entries into last year's NAIA Championship Series, but will have to overcome the loss of a fine senior class. That may create a playoff opportunity for Baker (7-3, 6-3), which last got there in 2008.
"I feel like we've got some experience and continuity on our staff," noted Mike Grossner, entering his ninth year with the Wildcats. Still, the schedule is rugged. "You know you've got to play two Top-10 teams, and you've got beat at least one of them to get into the playoffs."
One of those is Valley (9-2, 8-1), which advanced to the post-season for the fourth time in six years in 2011 and enters this season ranked ninth in the NAIA. Head coach Paul Troth has added to the school's "great tradition of football" during his 10 years.
"We're proud we lead the NAIA in wins" during the history of the organization, Troth said. However, that guarantees the Vikings nothing, since "there are couple of great teams right there" in the conference.
Like Troth, Jonathan Quinn took over a program at MidAmerica Nazarene (10-2, 8-1) which was already strong -- and has kept it at that level. The Pioneers reached the second round of the playoffs last year, but the challenge for them and the other contenders is to play for the championship -- which former league member Lindenwood did in 2009, falling to Sioux Falls (S.D.), 25-22.
"It's a year of potential," Quinn remarked about his aggregation of talent. "It's going to be interesting to see how they play together."
That's a statement with which all 10 coaches would agree.
|1. MidAmerica Nazarene * (7)||10-2||96|
|2. Missouri Valley * (3)||9-2||86|
|4. Benedictine *||9-3||78|
|6. Central Methodist||5-5||44|
|8. Peru St.||2-8||38|
(x) - first place votes
* -- 2011 NAIA Championship Series