Wildcats hope to build on momentum
A young Baker University football team grew up last season.
After a slow start in 2005, the Wildcats won three of their final six games to finish 3-8. By season's end, 11 true freshmen had started for Baker.
"I feel we should be able to build on the momentum we had toward the end of last season," said Baker head coach Mike Grossner, entering his third season leading the Wildcats. "A lot of young guys got some great playing experience, and there's nothing like playing. Our players have a positive attitude with the way we finished. They're eager to get started on a new season. "
The Wildcats, who open the 2006 season Sept. 2 at Benedictine College, return six starters on offense and nine on defense from a squad that lost three games by a total of 10 points and an overtime loss. Top returners are all-Heart of America Athletic Conference selections Ryan Smith, Andy Bibb and Andrew Patch.
Smith, a junior punter from Atlanta and Baker's lone first-team all-conference pick in 2005, led the HAAC with a school-record 41.0-yard punting average. He also received honorable mention on the NAIA All-American football team.
"He's a great one," Grossner said of the talented punter. "He's matured, and our players look to him as a leader."
Bibb and Patch are key underclassmen in Grossner's development of the program. Bibb is a second-team all-HAAC offensive lineman. Patch was named to the all-HAAC third team at defensive end.
"We're going in the right direction," Grossner said. "We've made a commitment to young guys. We're not going to bring in a ton of transfers and try to hold a team together and have an instant fix. We're going to bring guys in and develop them."
Junior Kendall Bradley, Rogersville, Mo., returns at quarterback. He completed 131 of 269 passes for 1,642 yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore. Freshman Mack Brown, a transfer from the University of Colorado, is expected to challenge Bradley for a starting position. Brown was a standout high school player at Shawnee Mission North, where he set school records for career passing yards (4,805), touchdown passes (48) and completions (515).
"We have a healthy competition at quarterback," Grossner said. "Kendall has a lot of experience from last year. I believe the leadership at that position will be solid."
Senior Seth Williams, Grain Valley, Mo., enters the fall as Baker's No. 1 running back. He had 121 carries for 447 yards and five touchdowns last season while sharing time in the backfield with Micah Mason, who has been converted to linebacker.
"With our offensive line we're going to be able to control the line of scrimmage," Grossner said. "Our offensive line is talented and athletic. We are going to be able to run up front. They're going to be young and will get a chance to play a lot of games together."
Depth at tight end should improve Baker's ability to run after finishing last in the league in rushing (68.2 yards a game) last season. Newcomers Tylor St. Clair, Stilwell, Alfonso Nino, Houston, and Taylor Burnett, De Soto, lead the tight end corps.
"I'm a run guy, believe it or not," said Grossner, whose squad finished second in the HAAC last season in passing (257.4 yards a game). "Last year we had to hang our hat on throwing the football. If we got it to the 30-yard line, we had to look to score right away with a pass. We struggled to bang it into the end zone without a tight end or two."
Grossner believes the Wildcat defense has the manpower to improve. Baker surrendered 31.5 points a game last season.
"At times we played very good defense but we had some breakdowns on third down," Grossner said. "The biggest glaring weakness on defense was tackling. We gave up the big play. If we can get more three and outs, and tackle better we're going to be pretty good on defense."
Mason, a junior from Baldwin City, anchors the linebackers. He moved to defense at midseason last year against Missouri Valley. He returned two interceptions for touchdowns in a 45-24 victory and finished the season with 50 tackles.
"We have a solid group of linebackers," Grossner said.
Senior CJ Boram, Lauderhill, Fla., has moved to wide receiver. He set the school record for longest interception return (100 yards) in the victory over Missouri Valley last season.
Senior Travis Viehwig, sophomore Philip Weinmaster and Patch bolster the defensive line.
"I feel our front four athletically are going to be as good as anybody," Grossner said.
In addition Smith at punter and place kicker, other key special teams players are senior long snapper Tanner Purdum, Hewitt, Texas; sophomore returner James Hensley, Rosehill; and junior Paul Foltz, Perry. Purdum has received interest from the Green Bay Packers. Hensley finished last season with 1,196 all-purpose yards, including 501 on kickoff returns. Foltz, also a backup receiver, blocked six kicks last season.
The Wildcats are aiming for their first winning season since going 9-2 in 2000.
"I would be disappointed if we didn't break through with a winning season and compete for a title," Grossner said.