Campus Corner

Heart of America football teams take aim at Missouri Valley

Updated: 2013-08-06T23:44:14Z

By BLAIR KERKHOFF

The Kansas City Star

For the Baker football team, 2012 was an excellent season that could have been better.

The Wildcats won eight of 10 regular-season games and reached the NAIA playoffs for the first time since 2008.

But quarterback Jake Morse, the league’s co-offensive player of the year in the preseason, suffered a knee injury in the opener, missed a couple of games, and was never 100 percent, leaving Baker feeling good about the season but with an appetite for more.

“I wanted our guys to realize what they accomplished but realize what you just went through and let’s go from there,” coach Mike Grossner said.

Baker was the third choice of Heart of America Athletic Conference coaches who gathered at the NAIA national office in Kansas City for media day.

Defending champion Missouri Valley was the strong selection to repeat, with MidAmerica Nazarene, Baker, Evangel and Benedictine rounding out the top five.

The top contenders had reasons to feel encouraged.

Missouri Valley, which ran the table in the Heart and advanced to the NAIA semifinals, returns quarterback Bruce Reyes, who is 18-2 as a starter, and cornerback Tyler Davis, the conference defensive player of the year. He’s the son of former Oakland Raiders running back Clarence Davis, who rushed for 137 yards in the 1977 Super Bowl victory over Minnesota.

At media day, coaches and players spoke in reverse order of predicted finish, which made Vikings coach Paul Troth squirm.

“I don’t remember a time when somebody has been up here two years in a row,” Troth said.

Indeed, the Heart hasn’t crowned outright consecutive champions since MidAmerica Nazarene in 2002 and 2003.

The Pioneers return only three offensive starters, but one of them is running back Greg Gates, who led the conference in rushing at 128.5 yards per game.

Evangel had posted losing seasons in five of the previous six years before turning the corner and finishing 7-4 last year.

Benedictine’s Larry Wilcox enters his 35th year as the Ravens’ head coach — he has been on the staff since graduating the school in 1972 — and rarely has his program been picked as low as fifth. He has won five conference titles and appeared in the NAIA playoffs 11 times.

“But it’s probably where we deserve to be,” Wilcox said. “One of our many goals will prove to be among the top teams in a conference that has many good teams.”

The Heart’s strength makes it difficult for the bottom half to move up. Avila finished 1-10, with the victory claimed by a forfeit. But the Eagles closed the gap at the end of the season, losing their final three games by an average of six points.

“The emphasis will be every play matters,” Avila coach Justin Berna said.

Graceland coach Jeff Douglas isn’t averse to some additional karma. During the off-season, he traveled to New Richmond, Ind., which served as the fictional town of Hickory for the movie “Hoosiers.” Several shots in the movie were filmed there.

“I’m trying to draw on some of the mojo,” Douglas said.

To reach Blair Kerkhoff, call 816-234-4730 or send email to bkerkhoff@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/BlairKerkhoff.

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