Football captures South Division title in wild finish

Story by Chad Mullens, Writer

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The Baker Wildcats came into Saturday’s game at Evangel University ranked No. 2 in the NAIA with a 9-1 record. They outgained the Crusaders 486-253, forced four turnovers and held a 31-7 lead at halftime.

Yet with 2:28 to go in the fourth quarter, the Wildcats found themselves down 35-31 to a team with a losing record. Coach Mike Grossner knew he had to keep his composure for the good of the team.

“I knew if I went crazy, then the players would go crazy, so I tried to create an aura of calm,” Grossner said.

The Wildcats drove 61 yards in 1:40 to take a 38-35 lead on a 6-yard run by junior Adonis Powell. Powell gained 177 of the Wildcats’ season-high 247 rushing yards. Grossner was impressed with the efforts of all Wildcats runners.

“We’re missing Ladai Boose and Cornell Brown a little bit,” Grossner said. “They are big cogs in our offense, but Adonis ran well, Jordan Brown ran hard and Alex Stebbins ran hard.”

The Wildcat defense held strong on a final Evangel drive that started with 0:48 remaining, allowing Baker to win 38-35 and finish the regular season at 10-1, taking the Heart of America Athletic Conference South Division. Still, the 28-0 run by the Crusaders was concerning to Grossner.

“This game could have been 50-7 and we wouldn’t even be talking about this game, but we made it exciting from a standpoint that we gave up a lot of momentum, and they’re a good enough team that they jumped on it,” Grossner said. “I’m not going to say that going through a situation like that was helpful, because our guys need confidence going into the playoffs, but I’m more concerned that some guys got nicked up today.”

Among those nicked up were two defensive stalwarts in senior linebacker Tucker Pauley and sophomore defensive back Hayden Jenkins.

“When we lost Tucker Pauley, we lost a lot,” Grossner said. “He basically eliminates a whole side of the field for the offense. And also, once we lost Hayden they started hitting some deep balls on us, and there’s obviously a trend there.”

The second half problems for BU stemmed largely from the special teams. Sophomore kicker Clarence Clark had two field goals blocked, and a blocked punt from sophomore Jacob Tompkins led to a touchdown that gave Evangel its first lead of the game. Also, junior Nick Marra threw two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns, the first of which gave the Crusaders their only points of the first half.

“We were probably four plays away from winning big and feeling good about ourselves, so maybe this will be a wake-up call,” Grossner said. “We have to be smarter in the playoffs, where teams can defend really well and one crucial mistake can cost you.

The miscues on special teams are a concern for Grossner.

“The only thing I worry about on special teams is that when a mistake is made, that exposes a wound to everyone else,” Grossner said. “So if it’s a guy, we got to replace a guy, and if it’s a scheme, we got a change to scheme.”

Now, with the playoffs looming and Baker having a likely No. 2 seed, Grossner is excited to have home games in the first two rounds.

“In the playoffs I found out, and I was told in 2008 by Morningside’s head coach, that we’ve got to get a home game,” Grossner said. “It’s so much different. We learned that two years ago.”

He is optimistic about the prospects of his team, just like he has been with his past two playoff squads.

“We had a team in 2012 that should have beaten Saint Francis, who was a top four team,” Grossner said. “Then in ’13 I felt that we could win it all, but we didn’t, and this team is really similar, and I’m looking for the same thing.”