By BEN JOHNSON
Kenny Evans was confident he was going to be Northeastern State’s head football coach in 2014. That’s why he was “caught off-guard” when told NSU was in search of a new head coach roughly an hour after the season had ended on Saturday.
Someone who wasn’t as surprised was former NSU wide receiver Trey McVay. The most-decorated pass catcher in school history had seen the writing on the wall.
“I wasn’t surprised, to be honest,” McVay told the Tahlequah Daily Press. “I had a feeling it might come to this because of the record the last two years.”
Compiling an overall record of 22-44 in six seasons as NSU’s head coach, Evans navigated through treacherous waters in the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association. In the RiverHawks’ new league, Evans collected only six wins, compared to 15 losses.
However, all but one of those victories — against Central Missouri at home in 2012 — came against teams that have been cellar dwellers in the MIAA the past two seasons. That list includes Central Oklahoma (twice), Southwest Baptist (twice) and Lincoln (last year).
That’s why NSU has found itself staring up at the top half of the league for two seasons now.
“The MIAA is a bear,” NSU athletic director Tony Duckworth said during a Sunday press conference.
True, but McVay noticed some specific traits of NSU’s team in 2013 — none of which were too flattering.
“Basically, the team had the same feeling of the team when I was a redshirt freshman,” McVay said of the 2008 season — Evans’ first year as NSU’s head coach.
“I felt like it already had that losing mentality. It was a different culture, a different atmosphere. When something bad would happen, a lot of the team would go, ‘here we go again.’ It wasn’t guys saying let’s go do something about it.
“That’s kind of the vibe that I got.”
Coupled with a schedule that featured top 25 teams or clubs that were receiving votes for the top 25 in the first six games of the season, NSU also had to deal with crushing injuries this year. Quarterback Johnny Deaton went down in the opening game at Pittsburg State with a leg injury and never returned; preseason All-American running back Joel Rockmore tore knee ligaments in the second game of the year against Missouri Southern and sat out the rest of the year; and guys like linebacker Jack Gray, safety Victor Johnson and defensive end Cole Johnson were just a few of many that suffered season-ending injuries along the way.
That meant young reserves were thrust into key roles. Thor Long (a sophomore) took over at quarterback, Darrain Winston (a freshman) took over at safety and Hudson Baab (a redshirt freshman) took over center duties once Ross Dvorak had to move to left guard because of his inability to snap the ball, due to a cast on his hand.
Toss in fellow freshmen and sophomores — wide receivers, Steffon Herd, Ray Dobbs, Prince McJunkins and Tank Richmond, right guard Trevon Lawson, defensive end Jeremiah Milton, linebackers, Kenneth Davis, Carson Smallwood and Jordan Cunningham — and it was a learning experience for a majority of NSU’s team in 2013.
And McVay gets that.
“My senior season, we had a pretty good team; we had a lot of experience,” said McVay, whose team went 7-5 and earned a berth to the Mineral Water Bowl during his senior campaign. “We had a lot of fifth-year seniors. We had experience as well as great talent, and that kind of excited us to win. They say experience is the best teacher.”
NSU certainly was lagging in that category the last couple of months. However, young talent is still expected to compete in the MIAA.
That ultimately hurt Evans.
“Obviously, some the blame goes on the head coach, whether it’s a good or bad season,” McVay said. “Coach Evans understands that. That’s all what comes with being the leader on the football team.
“Some of the blame goes to Coach Evans, of course. He can’t deny that. But not all of it. When you get between those four lines, it’s up to the players to do what they need to do execute.”