Baker, Grand View picked to again lead the HAAC
OLATHE, Kan. -- The more things change, the more they stay the same on the Heart of America Conference football field.
Once again, Baker was chosen to repeat as South Division champions and Grand View was expected to remain atop the North Division, according to a poll of league coaches announced Monday during the HAAC Football Media Day at Olathe, Kan.
There are some differences this year, though. Not only is the competition tougher at the top, with a dark horse or two potential challenging the reigning kings, but the conference itself is undergoing changes as Avila leaving for the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference and Clarke makings its first foray into football in 2019.
Despite a dearth of returning starters, Missouri Valley College -- which finished third in the HAAC South Division a year ago -- is a narrow pick for second place this season. Head coach Paul Troth was called away from the meeting due to an emergency, so did not address the gathering. Fortunately, the Democrat-News published an interview with him last month.
In his 15th season, head coach Mike Grossner has put Baker (10-2, 4-1 South) into the field of top NAIA programs -- now one win shy of 600 for the program, which is chasing the Vikings (622) for the all-time lead.
"How we've been able to sustain and be consistent is good coaches who have been loyal and have stayed," Grossner explained his program's success. "With that, our culture has been set for quite a while."
While the Wildcats are clearly favored in the division, they are not without their challenges -- not the least of which is replacing all-America quarterback Logan Brettell, which led them to the NAIA championship game in 2016.
Brettell missed time last year with injuries, but Marco Aguinaga stepped in as a true freshman and completed 65.8 percent of his passes. Even with that, he'll have to compete with promising sophomore Brandon Mueller.
Baker also lost all-HAAC running back Cornell Brown early in the season, but he'll be back for his senior campaign and share duties with sophomore J.D. Woods -- who gained 1,696 yards and scored 25 touchdowns. The 'Cats lost three defensive lineman, but Grossner believes younger players can step in and that the defense is solid overall.
The biggest surprise in the South last season was Evangel (7-4, 4-1), which went from 4-7 during head coach Chuck Hepola's first year to co-champion his second.
"I thought we had a good football team, but it was a little bit surprising, to tell the truth," Hepola said. "I was glad for the type of season we had. I was really pleased with the way our kids played."
Hepola pointed out that the Crusaders did a good job in close games, and doing so while going deep into the bench. Evangel has nine starters back on offense -- including junior quarterback Cam Hardesty and his top back-up, sophomore Zeke Kuyawa -- and depth on a defense which allowed only a division-best 21.5 points per game.
The biggest unknown is MidAmerica Nazarene (5-6, 2-3), which in late April brought in Division I FCS Eastern Washington assistant Todd Sturdy to take over a program which had fallen from its status as perennial contender.
"I'm still trying to remember faces and names," said Sturdy, who missed spring practice. "It's been a process."
One of the main priorities will be determine what offense to run, among the many that the veteran Sturdy has utilized. Therefore, he said "the big thing for us is to keep it simple."
"I have to have the opportunity to see what we have," he noted. "It will be a work in progress."
Implementing a new offense is what third-year boss David Calloway will try to do at Central Methodist (2-9, 1-4), who promises it "will pick up the tempo" after scoring a league-low 17.9 points per game.
At least he has 18 starters back on both sides of the line, key among them sophomore free safety Erik Mays of Marshall -- among the many freshmen who played last year.
"Our biggest thing is establishing a culture," Calloway admitted. "We've talked about being tough for 60 minutes every game."
Although its hasn't returned to the top of the NAIA after winning the title the year prior to joining the league, Grand View (9-3, 4-1 North) has won three straight North Division championships and is not expected to decline any time soon.
The Vikings, though, have their youngest team in many years, with only 17 seniors. However, a strong group of juniors may make up for that.
"The majority of our players are those who have been in our program and have paid their dues," noted head coach Mike Woodley. Who will replace quarterback Jordan Knock, the reigning HAAC "player of the year," may be uncertain, but Grand View has met that kind of challenge before.
"Each and every one of us want to build a culture," Woodley explained his program's consistent preeminence. "If you work, your turn's going to come."
Woodley will have to contend with wily field boss Larry Wilcox, who begins his 40th year at the helm of Benedictine (9-3, 4-1) on the heels of a co-championship. The Ravens, however, lost 40 seniors from that squad.
"We have to replace those players, but the cupboard's not bare," Wilcox said. "We return some good players."
Among them is senior quarterback Shaefer Schuetz, who threw for a school-record 27 TDs, and senior running back Marquis Stewart -- who replaces all-American Ejay Johnson, logging 1,457 yards and 19 touchdowns his final season.
The leaders were pushed last year by two foes who tied for third place, with William Penn (7-4, 3-2) considered the leading challenger due to return of eight starters on its triple-option offense.
Finding the right quarterback to run that show may be a little problematic. Junior Tyler Woods, a converted cornerback, is back -- but is not necessarily a lock to keep the starting job.
That won't be as much of a concern should the Statesman defense perform as it did a year ago, when it had to lowest points-allowed total (206) in the league. With all-American junior lineman Resean Coleman and two-time all-HAAC senior linebacker Mason Wisse back on the field, that's quite likely.
"With those two guys leading the defense, you're going to give yourself an opportunity," head coach Todd Hafner said.
While Peru State (7-4, 3-2) had an impressive season, long-time coach Steve Schneiders has reason to be concerned about the holes created by graduation -- especially on offense.
"We like the guys we have coming back," Schneiders said, "but some are untested."
The defense, which yielded the most points (367) of any team with a winning record, offers a mixed bag as well.
"The talent of our football program has improved," Schneiders asserted. "The next step is to continue to recruit and bring in quality."
Badly in need of quality is Culver-Stockton (1-10, 1-4), where head coach Tom Sallay begins his second year with a young roster.
"We're still going to start a lot of young guys, freshmen and sophomores who we're expecting to start right away," Sallay noted. "We're here to dream big. We're not here to concede to anyone."
Neither, one suspects, is Graceland (1-10, 0-5) -- where Marc Kolb begins his second season of attempting to change a losing culture.
"We now know where everything is," Kolb said. "Last year we didn't. We know each other and the expectations."
The Yellowjackets have at least one reason to cheer: sophomore wideout Caleb Thomas, who had a remarkable 158 catches for 1,225 yards and 10 TDs. Who might also post exceptional performances remains to be seen.
"I love our recruiting class," Kolb declared. "We think we have a lot of guys who can come in and play right away."
Contact Chris Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org