It had been 20 years since the Baker University football team defeated two of its biggest rivals, Missouri Valley College and MidAmerica Nazarene University, in the same season.
The Wildcats’ X-factor in those match-ups, freshman wide receiver and place-kicker Clarence Clark, was new to both rivalries.
Saturday, against Missouri Valley, Baker had a fourth-and-two at the MVC 41-yard line, trailing 10-7 with 11:26 to go in the fourth quarter. Head coach Mike Grossner had to decide whether to punt, go for it on fourth down or kick a 59-yard field goal. Grossner called a timeout to talk with Clark, offensive coordinator Miguel Regalado, quarterback Jake Morse and others.
“The bottom line was, in the chaos that happened, I turned to Clarence and said, ‘Can you make it?’ He said, ‘I’ll make it, coach,’” Grossner said. “Then we talked some more amongst the group, and I turned to him again and said, ‘Can you make this?’ He said, ‘I’ll make it,’ and I said field goal.”
As the Wildcats lined up for the attempt, the wind at Clark’s back became nonexistent.
“We were kind of banking on the wind, and all of a sudden the wind stopped,” Clark said. “I was like, ‘Dang, this is about to be a straight-up 59-yard field goal.’ It barely made it, but it tied the game up.”
The defensive battle continued for the rest of regulation and into overtime, when BU linebacker Emmerson Clarke intercepted Missouri Valley. To win, all Baker’s offense needed was a field goal.
Although the Wildcats went backward on their overtime drive, Clark nailed the 53-yard game-winner.
Baker improved to 7-1, No. 6 in the NAIA, and Clark earned the NAIA Special Teams Player of the Week award.
“It means a lot,” Clark said. “For my freshman year just to be able to come in here and be making a difference for the team, it’s just a nice honor to have.”
Special on special teams
Clark has converted nine of his 14 field-goal attempts, including three of 55 yards or more — “On a calm day, I think 60 or right around that (is Clark’s range),” Grossner said. “On a windy day, I think he can go 70. I wouldn’t be surprised if we line up for a longer one this year.” — but he is not just a threat to put it through the uprights when he lines up for kicks.
Baker led MidAmerica Nazarene, 17-13, midway through the third quarter on Oct. 5 at Liston Stadium, but it had been 13 years since the Wildcats had defeated the Pioneers.
The Wildcats lined up for a 42-yard field goal to extend their lead to 20-13, but Grossner had something else in mind. Baker needed two yards for a first down, and Grossner wanted to catch the Pioneers off guard and keep the drive going. He drew up a play to give the ball to Clark on a fake.
“Instead of throwing it over the head and having the chance of something bad happen ... (holder Dom Reiske) flipped it under his arm to (Clark),” Grossner said. “The key to that play was that Clarence Clark can flat out beat anyone to the corner.”
Clark not only beat a few MNU defenders to the corner, he found his way to the end zone.
“It’s kind of fun to have coach utilizing my speed and my skill set,” Clark said. “He makes it more fun to kick when we can do special plays like that.”
Later in that same game, Clark scored in a more conventional way — a 21-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter. He stayed on to kick his fourth PAT of the day and put the Wildcats up 31-13. The Wildcats went on to defeat the Pioneers, 37-20, and Clark was named the Heart of America Athletic Conference Special Teams Player of the Week.
Good receiver, too
Through eight games, Clark leads Baker in touchdown receptions (six) and receiving yards (434).
Wide receiver was a position where the Wildcats were thin going into the season, after three leading wideouts from 2012 graduated in the spring.
Grossner has utilized tailbacks as receivers at times to make the offense more explosive, but Clark’s emerging as a big-play receiver has been key, according to quarterback Morse.
“He’s a speed guy. He can beat them with speed,” Morse said. “If somebody wants to get up and press him, he can get by them. He’s really good at getting off of a jam. His asset is his speed.”
After the first few practices of the season, Grossner had Clark running No. 1 and No. 2 receiving groups and has seen him improve week by week.
“In fall camp, his only detriment was the learning curve and the lingo. He looked confused for a while,” Grossner said. “Once the Chinese became English to him, he then started taking off. We knew he had the ability. You could see it.”
Clark came to Baker from Brophy College Prep High School in Phoenix, where soccer, not football, was his main sport.
He was named the East Valley Tribune Player of the Year and led the Broncos to two states titles and 69 wins in his high school career.
Clark was recruited to play soccer at several NCAA schools, including Seattle University, University of San Diego, Trinity University, Coastal Carolina and Florida International. While Clark loved playing soccer, he said “the atmosphere” of football is what made him sign to play for Grossner at Baker.
“I kind of liked the whole ‘Go to the huddle, get a play, execute the play,’” Clark said. “With soccer, I could go a whole game without touching the ball. ... I’ve been playing soccer for quite a while. I miss it, but football is my new career.”
After football season is over, Clark will show off his speed for Baker’s track and field team.
“I’m going to do the sprints,” Clark said. “Maybe the 100, 200 or any relays they want me to do and then the long jump, too.”
Even though Clark has had early success as the Wildcats’s kicker, he knows he has room for improvement. After all, he had never kicked field goals or extra points before coming to Baker.
“In high school, I only did kickoffs. ... Kicking field goals and PATs here is kind of new for me,” Clark said, “but I just like to be on the field to be a part of the game.”
To help Clark develop, Grossner hired former Baker placekicker Derek Doerfler as the team’s kicking coach. Doerfler kicked the longest field goal in school history when he booted a 62-yarder to beat William Jewell in 2007.
“Derek has made (Clark) for sure a better field goal guy by just giving him some mental and physical tips,” Grossner said.
Grossner also sees potential for Clark to refine his kickoff skills.
“If you watch him kick, he doesn’t take a full run-up. He takes three steps and hits most of them for touchbacks,” Grossner said. “Once he develops confidence in a run-up, he’s going to be a guy that kicks them out of the end zone. From a marketability standpoint, he’s an NFL-caliber kicker.”
And although Clark’s leg has started to put him in the national spotlight as a freshman, he has not been boasting about it.
“I think deep down he’s got to feel proud of his progress, but he’s a very humble kid. He’s not walking around campus like a BMOC, Big Man On Campus,” Grossner said.
“He’s level-headed. I think he knows that there are more big plays for him down the road, but he is going to carry us through some great times in his career and this is just the start of it.”