By Mark Schnabel

Newton Kansan

WICHITA — The Bethel College football team got a slight lift in the polls Thursday at the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference Thursday at the Old Town Hotel Conference Center in Wichita.

Tabor was picked by both the media and coaches polls to repeat at conference champions. Sterling was picked second by the coaches, followed by Kansas Wesleyan, Saint Mary, Ottawa, Bethel, Friends, Bethany, McPherson and Southwestern.

Kansas Wesleyan was picked second by the media, followed by Sterling, Saint Mary, Ottawa, Friends, Bethel, Bethany, McPherson and Southwestern.

The Threshers are coming off back-to-back 3-7 seasons under third-year coach Morris Lolar. The Threshers have a little over 100 players expected to report Aug. 12. Practice begins two days later.

Lolar reports nine starters back on offense and 10 back on defense. The entire starting offensive line returns.

“I have a very sour taste in my mouth from last year,” Lolar said. “I hope that we would have done better. Our coaching staff will step up and make sure that we do better. We had a solid group of kids who worked their tails off. We just couldn’t finish games out. We had seven or eight games that went down to the wire. As coaches, we have to step up and push our kids over that lump.”

The Threshers’ biggest loss was AFCA All-American cornerback Ricky Rodriguez, along with all-conference running back Jalen Sykes, receiver Marquis Jackson, fullback James Purvin and safety Miles Steed.

Top returnees include all-conference linebacker Jariah Booker, offensive lineman Henry Baxter, defensive end Michael Bell, offensive lineman Kyle Wilson, receiver Gary Jolivet, defensive end Carlos Dickerson, linebacker Jordan Bell and defensive tackle Joseph Winfield.

“We’re going to work hard this year,” Lolar said. “It’s not going to be any big secret, we’re going to lean on our defense. We’re going to come out and hit you in the mouth defensively. Offensively, we’re going to do the same. We’re not going to try and throw it all over the place.”

Bethel will have five quarterbacks competing for the starting job. One of the candidates is Hesston freshman Zach Esau, who led the Swathers to the Class 3A championship game last season and helped lead the West All-Stars to a Shrine Bowl win.

“He’s probably our first one,” Lolar said. “There were a lot of kids in the Shrine Bowl that hadn’t singed by anybody. There probably some that have been picked up now. Zach, I think, is our first Shrine Bowl guy.”

Lolar expects to have about 40 to 50 newcomers report.

“That’s a lot of new faces, but the good thing is we’re brining back about 60 from last year, which is pretty good retention for Bethel. All of those kids have experience playing. There’s a possibility if our twos show up, we could be a pretty good team.”

Bethel has about 20 in-state players on the roster this season, something Lolar feels will increase as the state junior colleges eliminated restrictions on out-of-state players.

“It hasn’t (affected us) yet, but I see it coming,” Lolar said. “There are still a lot of kids who believe they can go that route. Unfortunately, it will be a rude awakening for some. Next year, it will really pick up and the year after that.

“Our second-team is going to drive us. Those twos and threes. I’ll put our ones against anybody in the nation — maybe not (NAIA quarterfinalist) Morningside. That depth thing is what we have to overcome. We will need to get after those guys who back them up.”

Bethel opens the season Sept. 2 at home against Dordt in the KCAC-GPAC Challenge.

Pre-season pick Tabor returns 43 players from last season, including eight offensive and six defensive starters. Tenth-year head coach Mike Gardner expects to have close to 140 players from a team that finished 8-3 last season, 8-1 in conference play.

Top returnees include offensive lineman Spencer Baalman, quarterback Curry Parham, running back Ontrevon Cooper, receiver Zach Johnson, defensive lineman Evan Sprayberry, defensive back Sean Kelley, defensive back Kevin Golden and defensive lineman Dimitri Bowie.

“We’re going to embrase change,” Gardner said. “If we have to change our offense, we’ll do that to accommodate our people, we will. If we have to change defensively, we’ll do that too.”

The Bluejays open with Morningside, the same team that ended the Bluejays season 65-17 in first round of the NAIA playoffs.

“The (GPAC) had good football programs,” Gardner said. “They coach well, they recruit well. They retain well. They have a good base. The gap is closing. I believe we have gentleman at this table who don’t just recruit to build their rosters. We’re trying to make an impact on people and trying to help our colleges out as well.”

The sole new coach introduced this year is Friends coach Dion Meneley, a Pittsburgh State grad, who spent the last four seasons at Hutchinson Community College. He also coached at Fort Hays State and Southwestern.