78
      Saturday
      84 / 66
      Sunday
      88 / 67
      Monday
      89 / 67

      Loeffler's Link - Is this the year?

      The Lincoln Blue Tigers won only one game in 2011.

      They had a lot more victories last year, but these didn't really count.

      Instead of losing games 81-20 and 73-7, as they did often in 2011, there were more scores like 37-26 and 21-14.

      Still losses. Moral victories, but only one win. Progress everywhere, except where in counted most.

      Another 1-10 season.

      "The program is definitely going in the right direction," Lincoln coach Mike Jones said in a recent interview. "We're learning how to play in a conference as tough as the MIAA --- it's the SEC of Division II football.

      "The program didn't get in this shape overnight and it can't be fixed overnight."

      (Jones was not available at the outset of Wednesday night's practice at Adkins Stadium, as the third-year coach was comforting a player who suffered a death in the family late Wednesday afternoon.)

      We should not overstate the progress, however. While the Blue Tigers --- who are 4-40 since 2009 --- were outscored by a staggering 595-172 two years ago, they were still outscored 458-233 last year.

      Still, that's a noteworthy improvement of 198 points in points-differential.

      "We've won two games in the last two years," junior quarterback Jacob Morris said. "But just in the two years I've been here, there's a huge difference within the program, the players who are here now and the mentality we have.

      "We realize that in order to change the program around, we're going to have to come together more as a team. I'm expecting a lot better things this season."

      There are reasons for optimism. Lincoln has nine starters returning on offense, seven on defense, 53 returning lettermen, and 21 seniors on the roster.

      Those numbers are easily the biggest this program has had in a long, LONG time.

      Long, as in decades.

      "There's a lot more leadership here; more captains and more people looking over you and making sure you make the right decisions," junior center J.J. Johnson said.

      Offered Morris: "It's very important. Not just for the football aspect of it, but for the football team to be able to say we've got 21 seniors ready to graduate, that's a big accomplishment."

      How long has it been since a Lincoln player has been able to say THAT? Even longer than long.

      Morris (6-3, 220) seems poised for a big season. As a sophomore, the Rolla product threw for 1,718 yards and 10 touchdowns, while rushing for 390 yards and a team-high six scores.

      He'll be working behind an offensive line that returns four starters, including Johnson (5-11, 289) --- a graduate of Jefferson City High School offense who was named MIAA All-Conference honorable mention last year

      Fundamentally speaking, Johnson said, the Blue Tigers have made big strides.

      "Last year, we came out and had some games that's were ours to win, but we lost them in the fundamentals," he said. "When it came down to it, the little things killed us and that's how it's been at Lincoln.

      "But coming out of this summer, I'm confident we have the fundamentals down-pat and we can go win some games."

      The defense will be anchored by honorable mention selections Darryl Blackmon (6-8, 290-pound, senior tackle) and Markuice Savage (5-8, 175-pound, sophomore defensive back).

      Newcomer Justus Schulte (6-1, 210), a freshman linebacker and a May graduate of Helias, will be looking to make an impact.

      "It feels good to take the next step and being so close to home, it's makes you more comfortable," Schulte said. "It allows you to think more about football than getting used to a new atmosphere."

      Schulte left Helias as the leading tackler in school history. And he left a program that has a deep winning tradition for one that has a deep one of losing.

      Bring it on, he said.

      "I think it's a challenge and I'm always up for a challenge," Schulte said. "It's happened for a reason that I'm here, but winning is hard to do, wherever you go.

      "I've talked to a lot of guys and they say it's a whole new feeling around here. I trust them enough to give me the sense that it's going to be a different year."

      More wins instead of more moral victories would be a good start.

      "Most definitely," Morris said. "2-20 since I've been here isn't very satisfying, but I know the program has gotten a lot better since I've been here.

      "Hopefully, this year we can win some more games."

      III

      While the Blue Tigers open the season Thursday, Sept. 5, at Lindenwood, you have a chance to take a great road trip for the game on Saturday, Sept. 14, at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, when Lincolns meets traditional power Grambling State at 4:30 p.m.

      The trip, courtesy of Central Travel, includes travel on a deluxe motor coach bus, a ticket to the game, a pre-game tailgate meal featuring Kansas City Gates Barbecue with all the trimmings, and a pre-game Battle of the Bands between Lincoln and Grambling State.

      The bus will leave Jefferson City at noon and should depart for Jefferson City around 7:30 p.m., with an estimated arrival time of 10 p.m.

      The all-inclusive package costs $59 per person. You can order tickets by calling Central Travel at 573-634-1317, or stopping by the offices at 228 Madison St.