The 2014 football season was one of two tales for the McKendree University Bearcats.
Starting the season with six consecutive losses, including a 52-7 shellacking at eventual Great Lakes Valley Conference champion Indianapolis, the Bearcats turned the page during the second half with five straight wins.
With 17 starters returning — including eight from an offensive unit which averaged 41 points per game in its final five games — it’s no wonder third-year coach Mike Babcock is anxiously awaiting the 2015 campaign.
“We ended last season on such a great note, winning our last five games, that I think it kind of propelled our guys into the offseason. I know the guys are all pumped up and we’re all excited to get going and see where we are during these first couple of games,’’ Babcock said Friday during GLVC Media Day, which was hosted by McKendree. “I think we’ve got a lot of confidence going in, but it’s different from week to week.
“If we have a good game one week, it will give us confidence going into the next week. It’s about building that confidence as you go along then being able to sustain it through an 11-game schedule.’’
With that confidence and several key players returning, the Bearcats certainly have the attention of the eight other GLVC coaches, who picked them to finish fourth in the annual preseason league poll, which was released Friday.
Defending league champion Indianapolis (9-2, 7-1) was picked to defend its title while Truman State (6-4, 5-3), St. Joseph’s (8-3, 5-3) and McKendree (5-6, 5-3) completed the top four teams. Indianapolis received eight of nine first-place votes. St. Joseph’s received the other one.
Winding up the preseason rankings were Quincy (6-5, 4-4), Missouri S&T (4-7, 3-5), William Jewell (5-6, 5-3), Lincoln (2-9, 1-7) and Southwest Baptist (4-7, 1-7).
“You’ve always got to look at the University of Indianapolis. They are always so well coached and have good personnel on both sides of the football,’’ Babcock said. “But after that we’re all pretty even. Last year, there was a four-way tie for second place in the conference and I expect it to be another close race again this year.
“Every week you know going in that it’s going to be a tough game. You’ve just got to take it week by week and be ready to play every Saturday afternoon.”
The Bearcats open their season Sept. 5 when they host College of Faith at Leemon Field beginning at 6 p.m.
McKendree’s offense will be led by senior quarterback Isaac Fisher, who threw for over 2,700 yards and 19 touchdowns while running for another 760 yards and nine scores. An all-GLVC honorable mention selection a year ago, Fisher will have a strong trio of receivers to throw to, including former Edwardsville standout Cameron James as well as Tyler Brewer and Dustin Walls.
Also one of the top NCAA Divison II sprinters in the nation, James caught 61 passes for 516 yards and five scores last season, when he was an all-GLVC second-team choice.
“Last year got off to a slow start for myself and the team, but as the season went on we got a little better each week,’’ James said. “This season I’m looking at getting off to a good start and hoping to help this football team have a good year.
“Last year ended on such a good note that we’re all excited about what we think we have a chance to do. We’re ready to get it started.’’
On defense, McKendree may have two of the most dominant players in the GLVC in juniors Lucky Baar and AJ Wentland.
The GLVC defensive player of the year, Barr, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound defensive lineman, set McKendree school records in quarterback sacks (18 1/2) and tackles for loss (26 1/2) while earning Little All-America first-team honors.
An all-GLVC first-team selection at linebacker, the 6-4, 225-pound Wentland set a McKendree record a year ago with 132 tackles.
“We’ve had a great off-season with a lot of guys coming in every day and really working hard. We’re all working for one common goal, which is to win the conference and hopefully make the playoffs,’’ Wentland said. “We’re all looking for a big season.’’
In additon to its season-opening game, the rest of the Bearcats’ six-game home schedule will feature Northwood University (Sept.19), Southwest Baptist (Oct. 3), Indianapolis (Oct. 10), Lincoln University (Oct. 31) and Quincy (Nov. 7).
Road contests will be West Liberty (Sept. 12), William Jewell (Sept. 26), St. Joseph’s (Oct. 17), Missouri S & T (Oct. 24) and Truman State (Nov. 14).
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at email@example.com or 618-239-2661.