Steve Wilson admits there were times – several of them – when he wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. Not that day, that week, that month or the foreseeable future.
Just five months into his new job as director of Athletics at Kansas Wesleyan, his –
and everyone else’s – world turned upside down with the sudden onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was no cure, no prevention and safety protocols were being developed daily reactive to what the virus was doing.
“There’s no playbook for what we’re going through,” Wilson said in April, 2020 as COVID-19 rolled unabated across the globe. “We’re writing a playbook that we hope and pray to God we never have to look at again the rest of our professional lives.”
The ensuing weeks and month were grim worldwide, as the focus turned to closures, shutdowns, quarantines and skyrocketing infection rates. Wesleyan, along with learning institutions across the country, closed their doors for on-site learning for the remainder of the 2020 spring semester, relying on remote learning to educate students.
There was, however, one piece of good news for KWU that came in the summer of 2020. Coyote teams did well during the 2019 fall semester and first two months of 2020 and won the Kansas Conference’s coveted Commissioner’s Cup – an award given annually to the institution that performs the best over the fall, winter and spring athletic seasons in 17 championships.
It was the first Cup for KWU, but the celebration was muted by the virus.
Pleased but not content Wilson, his staff and coaches begin making plans for a repeat performance during what surely would be an uncertain 2020-21 school year. His message was often imprecise, but always hopeful.
“We’re going to make mistakes, but we’re going to be together,” he said. “Not everything we do is going to be perfect. But every decision we made was with integrity and with the student in mind.”
An often helter-skelter fall semester was followed by a frantic spring semester as health protocols began to take effect and infections slowly leveled off, allowing teams to compete. By the end of the athletic year the Coyotes had played 537 contests – a mindboggling 384 in the spring.
And they were again wildly successful doing so, winning the Commissioner’s Cup for a second consecutive year – the announcement made on June 21. KWU is second school to win it in back-to-back years after Friends did so in 2015 and ’16.
“(Volleyball coach) Jessica Biegert says it best: ‘we’re surrounded by winners in this department,’” Wilson said. “There are people here who are absolutely addicted to winning.”
That doesn’t always refer to the final score, either. Wilson points to the men’s soccer team that, despite a tough regular season, lost to Sterling in the regular season finale and to McPherson in the KCAC tournament, both on goals with two seconds left – the Sterling setback in double overtime. Likewise, the women’s soccer team battled No. 13 Columbia (Mo.) to the end, losing in a shootout after double overtime in the NAIA national tournament despite being down six starters due to COVID-19.
“Nobody’s thinking about the Commissioner’s Cup more than I am, but they’re thinking about the absolute best finish possible,” Wilson said of his teams. “It means enough to people to represent the purple and gold so that every game feels like a playoff game. That’s the beauty of the Commissioner’s Cup. Every moment matters.”
The successes were numerous.
- Cross country was the lone sport that was played to its conclusion in the fall. KWU took advantage of running at home on the Great Life-Salina course in the KCAC Championships on November 14, the women placing third and men fourth. Stephanie Martinez won the women’s race in a time of 19:35.2. Teammate Tabetha Deines was 13th and both qualified for the NAIA Championships in March. Jacob Lovell finished 11th for the men and also qualified for nationals.
Every other fall team played a partial schedule, took a lengthy holiday break and resumed in the spring.
- Both basketball teams were able to play complete seasons. The women finished with a 16-11 record, 13-8 in the KCAC, and advanced to the semifinals of the conference tournament. Four Coyotes were named All-KCAC.
- The men were 12-14 and 9-11, but won five of their last six, including a victory over Avila in the first round of the KCAC tournament – the program’s first postseason victory since 2009. A.J. Range and Easton Hunter received KCAC postseason honors.
The spring semester was frantic with so many events to coordinate and manage.
“There are schools that don’t play 384 contests in a year,” Wilson said. “There were times when we sat around as an athletic management team and looked at each other like ‘there’s no way on God’s green earth this is going to happen.’ I look back at a couple of those dates and how did we pull that off? It was because of our people.
“It’s also because of patient student-athletes. They gave us a little grace. There were times when what we did was just enough to put the game on and hopefully not everyone would know the difference.”
- The football team played seven games in the fall and three in the spring, finishing with an 8-2 record, 5-2 in the conference. The Coyotes saved their best for last, going 3-0 in the spring and included a 28-21 victory over KCAC champion, previously unbeaten and No. 13-ranked Bethel on March 27 in North Newton. Isaiah Randalle and Stevie Williams were named AFCA/NAIA Honorable Mention All-Americans – Randalle ranking fourth in passing and Williams ninth in receiving in the NAIA. Nineteen Coyotes were named All-KCAC.
- Biegert’s volleyball team was 16-11, 13-8 KCAC, won seven of its last eight and was 10-4 in the spring despite having no seniors on the roster. Emily Monson was named the KCAC Defender of the Year and four others earned all-conference honors.
- The women’s soccer team had a sensational year going 14-5-1 overall and 9-2-1 to place second in the KCAC before falling to Columbia. The Coyotes were 8-4 in the spring and eight received all-conference honors. The men were 4-8-2, 4-5-1 in the conference.
- The golf teams had dream seasons, each winning KCAC titles and qualifying for their respective NAIA national tournaments. The men won the conference title by 10 shots over runner-up Bethany and were led by individual champion Troy Watson, who then placed seventh in the NAIA tournament and earned First Team All-America honors. The women ran away with the conference title, winning by 40 shots and were led by individual champion Hannah Hart.
- Indoor and outdoor track teams featured some outstanding individual performances, none more than Deines, who earned All-America honors indoors and outdoors in the 800 meters. She won the KCAC indoor mile and placed fifth in the 800 at nationals to earn All-America honors. Outdoors she won the KCAC 800 and 1,500, and was seventh in the 800 nationally. Martinez also qualified for nationals in the 10,000 meters after placing second in the KCAC. For the men, Eryk Kyser qualified for nationals in the long jump along with the men’s 4×400 relay team of Eugene Dixon, Nigel Davis, Malik Young and Kyser.
- The men’s bowling team won the NAIA Unaffiliated Group Championships in March at The Alley, which qualified them for nationals, where they were 1-2. Nathan Mercer was First Team All-KCAC and Taylor Miller Newcomer of the Year.
- Baseball finished the season 32-18, 23-10 in the KCAC – the 23 conference victories a school record. The Coyotes played the first game on the new turf at Dean Evans Stadium on March 5 and coach Bill Neale recorded his 200th career victory in KWU’s win over Bethany on April 10. Five Coyotes received All-KCAC recognition.
- The softball team was 16-22 record, 9-15 in the KCAC, and played on its newly turfed field for the first time on March 20. Three KWU athletes were received KCAC postseason honors.
- The women’s tennis team was 8-7 and 4-4. The Coyotes upset Sterling 4-2 in the KCAC tournament, the victory coming after a 6-1 loss to the Warriors a month earlier.
- Flag football debuted in the spring and was 6-8 in its first season. The Coyotes won the Silver Bracket Championship at NAIA Invitational at Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta in the season finale. Eight Coyotes received conference postseason honors.
- The Rocket League team notched a 3-0 victory over Wake Forest in the Collegiate Esports National Championships in April. The Coyotes also defeated Valparaiso, Fresno State twice, Northern Iowa and Dartmouth during the season.
“We made it through pretty strong,” Wilson said. “I think we got stronger, we learned about ourselves as the year went. We learned we have an opportunity now to lay a foundation and cornerstone and really dial in to what it means to be a model NAIA program. We have an incredible opportunity in front of us, with a lot of special moments to come.”
The 2019-20 season started strong but ground to an abrupt halt the second week of March.
- The football team posted its second consecutive undefeated conference season (10-0) and was 12-1 overall in the fall of 2019. The Coyotes walloped Baker 42-7 in the first round of the NAIA playoffs before losing to Lindsay Wilson. Seven Coyotes earned All-America honors – Johnny Feauto, Trent Poe-Evans, Shaq Bradford, Demarco Prewitt, Takota Anderson, Williams and Eli Smith. Feauto was the KCAC Player of the Year, Prewitt the Offensive Player of the Year, Bradford Defensive Player of the Year and Myers Hendrickson the Coach of the Year. Bradford won the Cliff Harris Award given annually to the top small college defensive player and 22 Coyotes were named All-KCAC.
- The women’s basketball season came to a jump stop on March 12 in Sioux City, Iowa. The Coyotes defeated No. 17 Mayville State on March 11 in the first round of the NAIA II National Championship and were preparing to play No. 1 Concordia, Neb. the next day when the tournament was cancelled, leaving them with a 26-6 record, 21-3 in the KCAC. They won the first outright conference title in program history during the regular season. Kelsey Hinz was named KCAC Newcomer of the Year, Ryan Showman Coach of the Year and five earned all-conference honors. The men’s team was 12-14 and 9-11, but won five of its last six regular season games. Three Coyotes were named All-KCAC.
- Women’s soccer team was 11-9 and 10-2, winning 11 of its last 13 matches. The Coyotes defeated McPherson in the KCAC quarterfinals before losing to Friends in the semifinals. Seven players were named All-KCAC. The men were 10-9 and 8-3-1, with a quarterfinal win over Saint Mary’s on their ledger. Seven Coyotes received KCAC postseason honors.
- Four Coyotes qualified for NAIA nationals in cross country – Martinez on the women’s side and Kaeori Giron, Lovell and Sam Overbey for the men.
- The volleyball team was 15-18 and 8-4 in the KCAC after winning eight of its last nine matches. Three Coyotes received All-KCAC recognition.
- The baseball team played 23 games, going 12-11 before the season was cancelled. The softball team played 22 games (14-8) and the bowling team competed in 12 events. The indoor track season was cancelled just before the NAIA national meet.
Wilson understands the expectations that go with winning back-to-back Commissioners Cups and welcomes the challenge.
“I have the great honor of being the biggest fan for all these teams and I get to be the most optimistic guy in the room about our teams. That’s kind of the beauty of not coaching, anymore. I’ve not always had that luxury, but it does give me wild respect for what these coaches do, and do at a high level,” he said. “I don’t ever feel like we’re putting a product on the field that isn’t capable. And we’re capable in every single one of our sports of doing something special every time we take the field.
“Expectation is a good thing. Success begats success.”
Story courtesy of KWUCoyotes.com