The Baker Orange

Football picked third in South Division

Story by Jim Joyner, Sports Editor

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The No. 15 Baker football team went through one of the most eventful seasons for any college team in 2014.

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The Wildcats jumped to No. 2 in the nation after a 7-0 start, even with the adversity of their head coach battling cancer. They overcame, what seemed like, endless injuries to all-conference performers, three-year starters and senior leaders. The Wildcats even confronted a death on the team after week eight.

Even with all of these hardships, Baker was one drive, 60 yards and a touchdown away from reaching the playoffs for the third consecutive season. The Liston Stadium scoreboard read “Missouri Valley 27 – Baker 24” as the Wildcats fumbled away their final possession of the season as the clock expired.

Head coach Mike Grossner enters his 12th season at Baker after an 8-3 season in 2014 and feels confident in his young team even after all the challenges of the past season.

“In the past I’ve questioned going in, ‘what’s our makeup?’” Grossner said. “Even talking to our players’ council, ‘what kind of group are we?’ and I don’t have any problem with this group.”

The Heart Football Coaches’ Preseason Poll was announced at the Heart of America Athletic Conference’s football media day on Aug. 3 in Olathe. Newcomer Grand View University was picked to finish first in the North Division and MidAmerica Nazarene University was picked to finish first in the South Division. Baker was picked to finish third in the South.

“I think that’s where we needed to be picked,” Grossner said. “That’s where we ended up.”

Grossner believes that due to the way the season ended in 2014 plus the losses for Baker across the board, on paper, the coaches were accurate in their selection.

“We lose to (Missouri Valley) last second, we lose to MidAmerica in overtime and we’re picked behind them,” Grossner said. “That’s where we should be.”

Even though Grossner seems content with the preseason poll, it can still be seen as an inspiration for the team.

“I think it’s good to surprise people and I’m super-confident coming into the season, and I think we’re going to surprise a lot of people,” junior quarterback Nick Marra said. “I don’t mind being the underdog.”

Senior linebacker and captain Tucker Pauley also views the recent poll as motivation for this upcoming season.

“It makes us a little frustrated. We work hard and we had a little rough ending to our season last year,” Pauley said. “We’re going to come out and turn some heads and show them what we’ve really got.”

For Pauley, being an underdog is the attitude that he brings onto the gridiron every single day.

“I’ve been an underdog since the day I started playing football,” Pauley said. “I’m a 5-7 linebacker so I’m used to it.”

This is the first season that the Heart will use a two-division system with six teams in each division.

“Very tough tough league North and South,” Grossner said of the six conference teams ranked in the national preseason poll.

The South Division features No. 8 MidAmerica, No. 9 Missouri Valley, No. 15 Baker, Evangel, Central Methodist and Avila. The North Division consists of No. 6 Grand View, No. 25 Benedictine, newcomer No. 19 William Penn University, Graceland, Peru State and Culver-Stockton.

Baker did receive one first place vote in the South Division but finished six points behind MidAmerica and three votes shy of Missouri Valley’s four. Missouri Valley received one first place vote as well.

The schedule for the teams in the HAAC will feature six games against the teams from the opposite division. Then, every team will have a bye week before finishing out the rest of the season with the five teams from its division.

Marra has been anticipating this game on the schedule since the clock expired on the Wildcats against Missouri Valley in week 11 last season.

“I’ve been having sleepless nights thinking about these games. I’m so excited to go up there,” Marra said. “We’ve been putting in so much work this summer and it’s been phenomenal.”

Baker opens the season Aug. 29 at Grand View in Des Moines, Iowa. The Wildcats then play at Culver-Stockton in week two and at home in weeks three and four against William Penn and Graceland.

“I think we look at the first three and when those are over you just kind of say, ‘OK, let’s see where we’re at,’” Grossner said. “And then you talk to your football team. If we’re 3-0 you’ve got to keep them on an even keel.”

The Heart of America Athletic Conference is viewed as one of, if not the, toughest conference in all of the NAIA. Grossner believes you can’t look past any team in this league.

“I think you take it one week at a time, the old cliché, but you really do,” Grossner said. “And then you regroup or bring them down to earth and move on to the next one. That’s the beauty of this season.”

Grossner spoke very highly of his team. It will be a young team, but Grossner believes the young players on his roster will rise to the occasion.

“I like our team, I like our mentalities and I like their personality,” Grossner said. “I think they’re going to be fun to coach, and they’re not going to be back down to anybody.”

The opening game at Grand View will be on the ESPN3 network at 11 a.m. This is Grand View’s inaugural season in the conference and eighth season of football. The game can be heard on 89.7 KNBU-FM in Baldwin City, as well as online at www.knbufm.com.

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