At 5-0, the Bearcats are off to the best start in program history under second-year head coach Robert Clardy. A win over Truman State on Saturday could give the Bearcats the inside track on not only the GLVC title, but also an NCAA playoff berth. It’s a far cry from last season’s 4-6 record in Clardy’s first season.
So, what accounts for the turnaround in Bolivar, Mo.?
“It’s a lot of the players from years past,” Clardy (pictured left) told me during a phone interview earlier this week. “But the players and their experience that they brought into this season has probably been the biggest difference. They came together in the off-season.”
That four-win campaign could just as easily have been a six, seven, or even an eight-win campaign in 2015. Three of SBU’s losses were by two points or less; a fourth, to Grand Valley, was by eight points.
“They obviously went through some tough losses last season,” Clardy said. “They knew how close we were, but still just making too many little mistakes, mental errors that were getting us beat. That was our main focus in the off-season. They just didn’t want that to happen anymore. Instead of just competing in games, we’re winning those games.”
The players took that message to heart.
“Everyone on the team has the same motto: they just want to be better every time they step on the field,” said senior nickelback Shaun Hutchinson (pictured right). “That’s the main reason why, defensively, we’ve been getting better every day and it’s really showing when we play on Saturday.”
It all started with back-to-back in-region wins over Lone Star Conference opponents in Eastern New Mexico and Tarleton State. And, in an era where neighboring conferences such as the MIAA and the Great American Conference have opted for ‘closed’ scheduling, securing quality opponents became a priority, not just for SBU, but for other teams in the GLVC.
“We knew, especially since they were regional games, that they were going to be big games, not only for the program but as a conference to show how our whole conference across the board is getting better,” Clardy said. “We feel like we can compete with anybody and we deserve the same amount of respect as everybody else. Playing Eastern New Mexico, we knew they were going to be pretty good. We knew it was going to be a big challenge for us as a program. The kids played pretty well.”
Perhaps the more impressive of the two early season contests was the Bearcats’ come-from-behind win at Tarleton State, just a couple hours southwest of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
“We didn’t know what to expect,” Clardy said. “We knew [Tarleton] had a lot of talent and they’ve historically been pretty good. It was practically a home game with as many kids as we have from Dallas and how many family members came to that game. That was a great experience for our kids to go down there and play in front of almost a hometown crowd.”
A game like that could prove to be a good learning tool for a team which has seen their share of struggles on the field in recent years.
“It was the closest our kids would get to a playoff-type atmosphere with playing in a hostile environment being down early and having to come back in a game like that on the road was a true test of our kids’ character and our focus and just how they stayed together on a team,” Clardy said.
That’s not to say there wasn’t room for improvement, at least from the players’ perspective.
“Defensively, I think the first two games we started a little slow,” Hutchinson admitted. “But these past couple of weeks our prep has been the main key to our success. When we step on the field at practice, we want to be great.”
The Bearcats’ success against the LSC, combined with McKendree’s Week 1 upset over Angelo State, sent a message that the GLVC is no longer just Indianapolis (four-time defending GLVC champions) and eight other squads battling for second.
“UIndy just set the tone of what the conference was going to be like,” in the past four seasons, Clardy said. “They didn’t care about the way everybody else was playing, they were going to win the conference every single year until everybody else got better.”
With the Greyhounds losing their first three GLVC games this season, that appears to have come to fruition.
“One of the first things [UIndy head coach Bob Bartolomo] said (during the GLVC media day) was how much more talent he’s noticed in recruiting across the conference these last couple of years,” Clardy said. “We knew to try and take the next step in this conference was to try and beat UIndy. They only lost one conference game going into our game.”
And beat them, the Bearcats did, by a score of 41-37, nearly a year after the Greyhounds edged SBU 26-24.
“The rest of the conference knew that they needed to step up to try and be at and you noticed teams making big leaps each year,” Clardy noted. “Missouri S&T had a great season a couple years ago and last season, McKendree has been putting out a lot of talent and Quincy had a great start to the season. Just across the board, this conference is getting better. There’s a lot of talent, there’s a lot of great coaches. We just have to continue to get better and keep recruiting great kids because we know everybody else is going to get better and they’re not going to stop.”
As for that talent which has made their way to Bolivar, When you have the reigning Great Lakes Valley Conference freshman of the year in T.J. Edwards at quarterback, the sky is the limit. But, the dual-threat quarterback isn’t the only weapon at Clardy’s disposal.
Enter junior tailback Bubba Jenkins.
“Bubba’s probably one of the hardest runners we’ve ever had and the best running back in the conference,” Clardy said. “Bubba does a lot to take a lot of pressure of T.J. as well.”
With Edwards throwing for over 2,300 yards and 21 touchdowns last season while rushing for 479 yards and eight touchdowns, it was Jenkins who proved to be Robin to Edwards’ Batman.
“We knew that we needed some of that pressure off of him so T.J. didn’t feel like he needed to make every single play because he knew he had Bubba there,” Clardy said. “Whenever you have a running back like Bubba back there and an offensive line that’s been playing awesome these past few weeks – the holes that he’s had to run through have been bigger than in years past and that’s a testament to our offensive line coach and our offensive line for getting better every single day.”
According to Clardy, Jenkins’ work ethic is one of the best on the team.
“He shows up every single day, he’s all business,” Clardy said. “He doesn’t like to joke around a whole lot at practice, sometimes we have to try and get him to loosen up a little bit. When he’s there, he’s out there to not only get himself better, but to make his teammates better as well.”
Yet, it’s not all about the offense for the Bearcats. Led by senior defensive end Via Manuma (9.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks), senior defensive tackle Vice Epenesa, junior linebacker Brycen Gagnon and sophomore Mygeish Dennis, the SBU defense is making their impact felt as well.
“A lot of the guys are very experienced,” said Hutchinson, who leads the team with 44 tackles, including 6.5 for loss. “Their experience is a lot for us to have on defense. Their work ethic and the way they play – they play very intense and that’s what we need to have on defense. They’re very physical and that’s a struggle for some offenses.”
While it’s too early to tell whether the 2016 Southwest Baptist Bearcats can make a deep run and carry the GLVC banner all the way to Kansas City, you can bet that the season to this point has been a fulfilling one for Clardy.
“The guys have done an amazing job,” Clardy said. “It’s real exciting to watch them play at this kind of level, because they deserve it.”