As McKendree University football coach Mike Babcock sat at his desk following a recent early morning practice, he had a look of quiet confidence.
Now a day away from the Bearcats 2015 opener, Babcock enters his third season with 17 starters and 44 letterwinners returning from a squad which won its final five games — all in the Great Lakes Valley Conference — to finish 5-6 and more importantly build some momentum heading into this year.
Nearly 10 months after laying the foundation, Babcock and his staff and players hope to build a champion this fall.
But one step at a time.
“We’ve had a great offseason and a great preseason camp. I think the guys are ready to get it going,’’ Babcock said. “We’ve got a lot of guys back and a lot of guys who did some good things for us last year. But that was last year.
“One of the things we stress around here is that we are a team. Personal honors and accolades are nice, but when it’s all said and done at the end of the year, I think everybody wants to be part of a winner. To be part of a champion.
“And if we go hard enough and if luck falls our way a little bit, then I think we’ve got a good shot of doing that. But one game at a time. Our job as coaches is to keep these players focused on the task at hand. One game at a time.’’
The road to the NCAA Division II playoffs for the Bearcats begins Saturday, when it hosts College of Faith from West Memphis, Ark. The Warriors are a first-year program which will be playing the first game in its school history against McKendree, beginning at 6 p.m. at Leemon Field.
Coached by Sherwyn Thomas, the Warriors are playing a limited eight-game schedule as an independent. They will face a McKendree squad loaded with offensive weapons and perhaps one of the top defensive duos in the Great Lakes Valley Conference in junior linebacker A.J. Wentland and junior defensive end Lucky Baar.
But the man who makes McKendree go on offense is senior quarterback Isaac Fisher.
An honorable mention all-GLVC player a year ago, Fisher threw for 2,722 yards and 19 touchdowns while rushing for 764 yards and nine TDs.
“We’re a little more balanced on offense than they (McKendree) were during the Coach Poelker days/ We’re passing a little more often,’’ Babcock said. “Having a player like Isaac back and knowing what he means to this football team is very comforting. He’s a highly-motivated and competitive kid who does a great job running our offense.
“He’s the kind of player who will get knocked down, dust himself off and come right back you ever harder the next play.’’
Fisher should have plenty of help in the backfield. Among the top running backs in Babcock’s rotation will be Kevin Witcik (289 yards, 5 TDs), Shayeen Edwards (221 yards), Myles Hammonds (167 yards, 2 TDs) and Treye Williams (124 yards).
Leading the Bearcats up front on the offensive line will be senior Derrik Starrett (6-foot-5, 235 pounds). A first-team all GLVC performer at tackle in 2014, Starrett will be surrounded by experienced teammates Clint Rattermann (6-2, 245), Casey Krohe (6-3, 295) and Alex Palmer (6-6, 275).
“We have a lot of guys who have played on the offensive line,’’ Babcock said. “They aren’t going to be surprised at any defense they see because they’ve seen it all before.’’
Senior Cameron James from Edwardsville is not only one of the top NCAA Division II 60- and 100-meter sprinters in the nation, but he is also one of the top wide receivers.
A second team all-GLVC player last year, James had 61 receptions for 516 yard and five touchdowns during his junior season. Look for those numbers to go up, along with those put up by Tyler Brewer (35 catches, 321 yards and 3 TDs) and Dustin Walls (16 receptions for 288 yards and 2 TDs).
On the defensive side are Baar (6-2, 260) and Wentland (6-2, 225), who were among the best players in the nation a year ago. Baar, the defensive player of the year in the GLVC and a first-team Little All-American in 2014, had 65 tackles and set school records in quarterback sacks (18) and tackles for loss (26 1/2).
Wentland, who starred at (Machesney Park) Harlem High School, set a school record with 132 tackles and was also a first-team All-GLVC player last season.
“The thing about Lucky and AJ is that they are always working, always striving to get better and improve as football players,’’ Babcock said. “Having both of them back again is a nice way to build our defense.’’
A second-team all-GLVC player a year ago, senior Brett Pearman (6-3, 270) also returns after recording 30 tackles and six sacks, as does senior linebacker George Hill (56 tackles, 2 interceptions) and sophomore defensive back Derrick Curry (44 tackles).
In a poll of GLVC coaches, defending league champion the University of Indianapolis was the preseason pick to win the title. McKendree, which tied for second at 5-3 a year ago (best in school history) was picked to finish fourth.
“This time of year, I don’t think it matters. Polls are polls. What matters is playing well for eight weeks during the GLVC and taking each game as it comes,” Babcock said. “William Jewell was picked near the bottom of the league last year and all they did was tie for second and beat Indianapolis, which cost them a spot in the NCAA Division II playoffs.
“You’ve got be ready to play a good football team each week in this league.’’
On the air
The College of Life-McKendree University football game can be seen live on the Bearcat Sports Network (www.mckbearcats.com/watch) with the pre-game show beginning 15 minutes prior to kickoff. Joe Zydlo is in his seventh season of providing the call for all McKendree home contests. Scott Cummings is in his 13th season of handling the play-by-play duties on the road.
Contact reporter Dean Criddle at email@example.com or 618-239-2661.