On a day when the finishing touch was put on one of the finest seasons in the history of the McKendree University football program, there was no wild celebration as the Bearcats walked off the field last Saturday following a 31-3 win over Truman State.
Despite an 8-2 record, the finest in its three years under coach Mike Babcock, it didn’t take long for the reality to set in that McKandree had fallen short of the ultimate goal of a Great Lakes Valley Conference championship and NCAA Division II playoff berth.
“In talking to the players after the game, I really got the sense that while we had a great season with an 8-2 record, that they weren’t really satisfied. And that’s good. That’s the way I want them to be. I want them to have the perception that we’re always chasing perfection,’’ Babcock said.
“Like I said, we had a great year. But I think the guys want more and they want to take this football program to a higher level. They want to be in the NCAA Division II playoffs and they want to win a (GLVC) championship. We feel the foundation is set. Now we want to take that next step.’’
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Led by GLVC Offensive Player of the Year in senior quarterback Isaac Fisher and a strong defense, which was anchored by the likes of AJ Wentland, Lucky Baar, Cruz Navarro and Granite City native Brett Pearman, the Bearcats were within an eyelash of possibly reaching perfection in the regular season.
But a pair of late losses to GLVC champion Indianapolis and Missouri S & T, forced the Bearcats to settle for a second place conference finish.
“When you think about it. It really came down four minutes. We were tied with Indianapolis with two minutes left and we were probably two minutes away from beating S & T,’’ Babcock said. “But you see that. You see that at the NCAA Division I level as well. It’s very difficult to go 10-0 or 11-0.
“Obviously we’ve got things to work on, but I’m proud of this football team and proud of what we’ve accomplished.”
Unfortunately, the Bears climb to the very elite of NCAA Division II football will be without one of the great players in McKendree history in Fisher, who simply rewrote the passing and total offense records during his brilliant four-year tenure of leading the Bearcats.
Voted as the GLVC Offensive Player of he Year and one of 15 Bearcats to earn all-GLVC honors, Fisher broke school records in touchdown passes (21), passing yards (2,792) and total offense (3,595) this past season.
With Fisher leading the way, McKendree averaged 36.6 points per game and finished with 388 points for the season.
“I think the guys bought into the idea of not being good, but being great. And for that to happen it’s got to start with the quarterback. Isaac had just a phenomenal year. The kind of season you would expect out of a four year starter,’’ Babaock said, “He did some great things both running and passing the football and once more I think he helped the other guys buy into the idea that we are a great offensive football team.’’
Fisher had his share of help. Starting with former Edwardsville standout Cameron James (51 catches, 634 yards, 7TDs) along with Sean Dowling (48 catches, 688 yards, 3 TDs) Dustin Walls (42 catches, 520 yards, 5TDs), the Bearcats had three of the top receivers in the GLVC.
The emergence of former Cahokia star Shayeen Edwards (466 yards, 6 TDs) as a top running back also took pressure off the passing game and made the Bearcats even tougher to defend.
The defense led by Navarro, Pearman, Baar and Wentland was the best in the GLVC — allowing only 188 points all season. But with only two seniors on an otherwise young unit, McKendree was prone to giving up the big play.
“We gave up too many big plays. That was exactly the case against Missouri S & T where we gave up numerous big plays,’’ Babcock said. “There were just times when because of a turnover or just on downs we couldn’t get off the field.
“We’re going to continue to push that relentless type mentality and for our guys to play like their ‘hair is on fire’ approach in the off season. Guys like Lucky Baar and AJ Wentland, I don’t know too many players who work harder and spend more time wanting to get better then those two.’’
With the end of the season comes the start of a new — recruiting — season and Babcock and his staff are already on the recruiting trail throughout the St. Louis area for the next two months.
While the Bearcats fell short of a league title and NCAA playoff berth this year, Babcock hopes the 2015 McKendree squad has raised the bar in terms of goals for the future.