Saturday, October 25, 2014

Braves football perseveres way to NAIA playoffs

By Greg Mast/Herald Sports Editor | 11/12/2012

Perseverance is a word used to describe the past four years of the Ottawa University football program.

There have been a lot of successes, but a few bumps along the way to four straight NAIA playoff berths.

Perseverance is a word used to describe the past four years of the Ottawa University football program.

There have been a lot of successes, but a few bumps along the way to four straight NAIA playoff berths.

The road has not been easy to navigate with 0-2 starts the past two seasons and losing a game early to McPherson in 2010. In those three playoff seasons, Ottawa put together a 24-0 record when facing playoff elimination.

Ottawa needed to win the final seven games in 2010. Ottawa won its last nine regular season games last year and is on an eight-game march after falling to Kansas Wesleyan in the second week of the season.

Ottawa put the bow on a third Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference title in four seasons Saturday with a 51-6 win over Bethel in North Newton.

The No. 15 Braves plays 2 p.m. Saturday in the first round of the NAIA playoffs at No. 2 Missouri Valley, the Heart of America champs, in Marshall, Mo.

“This team has persevered really well this season,” Ottawa coach Kent Kessinger said. “They had to pick themselves back up after getting a couple of knockdowns. Hopefully that will benefit us as we go into the playoffs.

“We’ve got the plan after those [bad] starts. One thing we want to be known for as a team we will play hard all the time. You will always get our best shot. The guys also learned they have the confidence they can make a run. They can put things together back-to-back. It is passed down from team to team.”

During the run, Ottawa needed a couple of miracle finishes. Ottawa rallied from 10 points down in the final couple of minutes to nip Kansas Wesleyan in 2010.

This season, Donald Anderson, who was selected the KCAC defensive player of the year, returned a fumble 106 yards for a touchdown to give Ottawa a 25-21 victory over Tabor.

Ottawa senior quarterback Shane Gimzo, who was the KCAC player of the year, said it is mind-boggling to think about the way Ottawa finished those games and seasons with all their goals hanging in the balance.

“It is really unbelievable,” he said. “It is just dedication and character. We know what it takes to win. We are all dedicated and we push each other daily. It is a team sport. It takes all three [units] playing as one.”

Gimzo said the players had a meeting following the Coyote loss and each player vowed to give it their best shot.

“We had to treat every game like a playoff game,” Gimzo said.

Kessinger said Ottawa never gives in and plays with that mentality.

“Great games are won by perseverance,” Kessinger said. “Championships also are won by perseverance.”

Championship pedigree

Ottawa and Bethany are the top two programs in winning KCAC championships. Ottawa has 19 KCAC titles and one Heart of America championship, while Bethany garnered 20 KCAC titles.

Kessinger has been part of both programs. The ninth-year Brave coach is the son of the legendary Bethany coach Ted Kessinger and played for the Swedes.

He grew up around winning and expectations of championships. It took until his fifth year in Ottawa to turn things around.

“It has been a great honor for our staff to build this program to the level it is right now,” Kessinger said. “The kids that look at us in recruiting, they are thinking about winning championships. That was the goal when I came in as a head coach to be able to build a program to continue to win championships and not be a one hit wonder.”

Kessinger had a T-shirt during his Bethany days with the words “Continuing Championships.”

“That is what our kids have done here,” Kessinger said. “They expect to be in the top part of the conference and compete for championships year in and year out.”

The first couple of years at Ottawa, Kessinger had a sign that said expect victory, but that soon was replaced by deserve victory.

“You have to work for it,” he said. “It is not going be handed to you. We want to continue to be known as a strong championship program on and off the field.

“That is one of the reasons why we hold our guys accountable above and beyond as we do.”

Playoff time

The players and coaches understand the playoffs. Ottawa lost the past three playoff games since its first-round win in 2009, the first in program history.

Gimzo said the playoff teams are good no matter who is the opponent.

Kessinger said the program is no longer in awe of being in the playoffs.

“It is to the point now where we are past being satisfied about being in the playoffs,” he said. “Our guys are excited about what we’ve done, but also excited about continuing to play on.”

This is one of several playoff matchups through the years between the KCAC and HAAC.

“The NAIA likes pairing up the KCAC and the HAAC,” Kessinger said after remembering splitting with Baker in the playoffs as a player for Bethany.

Ottawa and Franklin County sports can followed on twitter @ottawasports1

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