For the previous three years, the Morningside College football team has been on top of the Great Plains Athletic Conference.
The Mustangs have won the regular season championship each of those years, amassing a conference record of 25-2.
So it’s no surprise that Morningside was picked to finish first in the GPAC in both the coaches and the media polls for this season.
“We have high expectations for our guys,” said Morningside coach Steve Ryan, who is 109-33 at the school. “We talk about goals and what they want to accomplish, but we focused this year on, it’s kind of cliché, but one game at a time and this theme of road to glory and the process to be successful. The process it takes to be successful as a student, a football player and a man of life.”
The Mustangs’ 2013 season came to an end in the semifinals of the NAIA national tournament. It was the 10th straight season Morningside had competed in the playoffs.
One of the biggest losses for the Mustangs comes on the offensive side of the ball, with the graduation of reigning NAIA and GPAC Football Player of the Year Kyle Schuck. He finished the season with 75 receptions, 1,419 yards and a school record 21 touchdowns. Morningside also lost its second-leading receiver in Joel McCabe, who totaled 63 catches, 866 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Senior Devin Thomas is the leading returner after catching 50 passes for 813 yards and seven touchdowns. Ryan knows his team is going to miss Schuck and McCabe, but he believes the Mustangs have some talent waiting to shine.
“We’ve got a group of young wide receivers who we’re very high on, probably as much as or more so than Shuck or McCabe years ago. They still have not played any games, they still have not made the plays necessary and you still don’t know how they’re going to develop, but they’re talented guys,” Ryan said. “I think we’re going to try to play more receivers than we typically do. We’re just going to try and get more guys in the game and try to play faster.”
Returning at the quarterback position is Ryan Kasdorf. As a junior last season, Kasdorf threw for 3,335 yards and 42 touchdowns, leading the GPAC in passing and total offense — he rushed for 534 yards and four touchdowns.
“(Kasdorf) injured his knee in the playoffs last year but has done a great job of rehabbing and has been cleared and is ready to go,” Ryan said. “Hopefully, he can have a good fall camp and be in a position where he can play well.”
Morningside brings back its leading rusher, junior Brandon Wegher, who rushed for 1,205 yards and nine scores. Ryan will be looking to sophomore Tyler Kavan to add some needed depth at the position.
“We always try to use a couple backs,” Ryan said. “We foresee Tyler to be in the backfield as much or close to as much as Brandon. The reality at running back is that you need two or three of them. Guys go down and guys get banged up.”
The Mustangs feel their linebackers they have will lead the defense.
After leading the team with 104 tackles and 15 tackles for loss last season, Zac Schleuger returns for his junior season. Alongside Schleuger will be senior Logan Gibbs (90 tackles, 15 tackles for loss, 4 1/2 sacks) and junior Ethan Stofferan (27 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, three sacks).
Senior Darrius McCullin will lead the defensive line after totaling 13 1/2 tackles for loss and three sacks last season. Darius Hicks is the lone returner in the secondary after intercepting a team-high four passes last season.
“On the defensive side of the ball, we feel like we have some excellent players coming back. We lost some good player from last year,” Ryan said. “We think our front seven could be as big and fast as we’ve ever had. Obviously, they still need to show up and play the game.”
Last year, the Mustangs played a total of eight teams receiving votes or ranked in the NAIA top-25 poll, including the No. 10, No. 4 and No. 2 teams in the playoffs.
This season, Morningside will start its year with a pair of road games, traveling to Valley City State University on Sept. 6 and Nebraska Wesleyan on Sept. 13.
On Oct. 11, the Mustangs will travel to Hastings College to play the Broncos. Morningside beat Hastings 44-3 last season.