LEBANON — If McKendree University is going to build a championship program, first-year coach Mike Babcock said its players must make a habit of living in the present.
"I've been on a number of championship teams, and those great teams never worried about, 'OK, I want seven wins. Or I want nine wins. Or I want 12 wins,'" said Babcock, who was hired in December after five years as an assistant coach at NCAA Division II power Colorado State University-Pueblo.
"It was developing that attitude of, 'Let's play hard for 60 minutes and worry about this game. Let's not worry about next week or in three weeks or at the end of the season, what bowl game I'm going to go to,'" Babcock said. "It's literally, this is the next game, this is where our focus is."
McKendree, which finished 3-7 overall and 3-5 in the Great Lakes Valley Conference last year under coach Carl Poelker, opens its season with a home game against Tiffin University (Ohio) at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. Tiffin was 3-8 last season.
Babcock, 34, a graduate of UCLA, was the quarterbacks coach and pass-game coordinator the last four years at CSU-Pueblo. Last season, the ThunderWolves were 12-1 and averaged just under 36 points and 443 yards of total offense per game.
Babcock has vowed to get the ball into the hands of his playmakers, and he believes the Bearcats have some in sophomore quarterback Isaac Fisher (6-foot-4, 195 pounds), junior running back Ryan Herring (5-8, 200), a Belleville East graduate, and sophomore running backs Jeruel Taylor (5-10, 230) and Cameron James (5-7, 160), an Edwardsville High graduate.
Fisher was 78-for-149 for 1,033 yards and five touchdowns in eight games last season after taking over for David Bergschneider.
"He comes in with experience from last year," Babcock said. "He's made tremendous strides from spring ball to fall camp. He's making better decisions than he did when it was day one of spring ball. I'm excited to see what he can do, especially when the whistle blows and it's live-game mode."
Babcock said Fisher must "play smart" and "be a great technician." At the same time, he said Fisher must stay within himself.
"I want him to make the right decisions on where the ball's going --whether it's run or pass," Babcock said. "I always say I want a Clark Kent. I don't need a Superman, but I'll settle for a Clark Kent if he does his job, goes to work, puts his head down and goes."
James (537 yards, seven TDs), Taylor (355 yards, two TDs) and Herring (339 yards) were McKendree's leading rushers in 2012.
"Ryan Herring and Jeruel Taylor have done tremendous jobs in fall camp as far as running the ball," Babcock said. "We're also trying to find ways to get Cameron James (the ball). He'll be our slot receiver, he'll be our punt returner and he'll be our kickoff returner. Any time you have a fast kid like that, finding ways to get him the ball will be important for us."
On the offensive line, senior Richie Rebmann (6-6, 285) will play tight tackle, senior Ayoola Oyetunji (6-0, 325) will play tight guard, senior Anthony Sabbatini (6-3, 290) and sophomore Clint Ratermann (6-2, 245), a Mater Dei graduate, will play split tackle and junior Ben Harrington (6-4, 265) will play center.
"It all starts up front," Babcock said. "If they can't run-block, you can't run the ball. If they can't pass-block, you can't throw the ball.
"I want us to be a physical offense. I want to be able to both run and throw the ball. I want to keep the defense on their toes with what types of plays that are coming. I also want to get our playmakers the ball. I want to find ways to help them succeed."
On defense, the Bearcats return senior defensive backs Jamison Wilson (6-0, 195), Ryan Keen (5-10, 170) and Tirell Anderson (6-1, 180), and junior linebacker Bryce Colvin (6-1, 235).
Wilson led McKendree in interceptions last season with five and ranked second on the team with 67 tackles. Keen had two interceptions and Colvin led the squad with 77 tackles.
Top defensive linemen in the preseason have been junior noseguards Cameron Ford (6-1, 275) and Sam Legg (6-3, 285) and sophomore ends Derrik Starrett (6-4, 245) and Lucky Baar (6-2, 240).
Babcock said a handful of freshmen could make contributions, including receiver Girard Jenkins Jr. (5-8, 175), cornerback Jabaree Winston (6-3, 175) and receiver Dewayne Gatti (6-1, 185). Jenkins Jr. and Winston are both graduates of Simeon High in Chicago.
McKendree was selected by GLVC coaches to finish fifth in the eight-team league. The Bearcats' conference opener is scheduled for Sept. 21 against William Jewell College in Liberty, Mo.
Babcock isn't predicting a championship, at least not yet.
"In Colorado, it took us four years to be conference champions," Babcock said. "I don't want to say it's going to take one year, three years, four years, 10 years. Every year, you start off as a new team, and this is the 2013 Bearcats.
"It really doesn't matter about the wins and losses. It matters that you put your head down, play hard for 60 minutes and at the end of the game, look up and see what the final score was. That's the attitude I want these guys to come into every game with this year."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2665.