Many Happy Holiday wishes, Lion Fans, and it has indeed been a happy one for all of us. We at The Lion Wire would like to take a look back at the happiest of seasons, on that will be remembered forever, and talked about for a very long time. It’s been 45 years since the last one. The following are five thoughts on what was, and how a special group of talented young men and their intrepid coach made history……….
- GREAT EXPECTATIONS-The expectations for the 2017 season couldn’t have been higher. Colby Carthel and his team had progressed from an initial winning season in 2013, to a bowl appearance, followed by a playoff appearance, then a playoff experience with a win, to now. They were loaded on offense with the best quarterback in Division II, a huge and athletic offensive line, talented, big play receivers, and a serviceable stable of running backs. The question would be….can the defense hold up? Would they be as good as they could be?
- BETTER THAN EXPECTED-Luis Perez, the 2017 Harlon Hill Award winner, and the offense were lighting up the scoreboard as expected. Perez led all of Division II in passing, and the Lions led in total offense. The pleasant surprise, however, was the defense, led by Cliff Harris Defensive Player of the Year nominees Brucks Saathoff, and Yusef Sterling-Lowe, and so many others, that was the star of the early season. From a safety that set up a win against #6 North Alabama on a night where the offense was not hitting on all cylinders, to shutting down the triple option attack of Eastern New Mexico and Harding, it was almost two complete games before the Lion defense surrendered their first touchdown, with 1:33 left to play in the final quarter of the home opener. The only letdown was a 47-42 loss to #10 Midwestern State, in which the Lions, despite suffering four turnovers, giving up 539 total yards, were one defensive stop away from having one more opportunity to pull off a win. It would prove to be their last.
- TEAM, TEAM, TEAM-To borrow a phrase from the late Michigan coach, Bo Schembecler, this was a champion that truly played as a team. They overcame injuries to Buck Wilson and Ta’von Blanchard, to the dismissal of Darius Webb for a violation of team rules, and not only survived, but thrived. Shawn Hooks returned in the nick of time to bolster the punt return game and receiving corps. There were many other backups, including many freshmen, that stepped into the breach to get the job done. The Lions got key contributions from kicker Kristov Martinez, who won games at North Alabama and Central Washington, as well as many others that sealed wins. His 48 yard kick against the wind at Minnesota State took all the fight out of a very good Maverick team.
- COACHING-There are not enough words in Webster’s to describe the magic that Colby Carthel, Matt Storm, and Justin Deason , along with their assistants, worked this season. From overcoming a disappointing loss at Midwestern State, a 28-7 halftime deficit at Central Washington, a considerable size disadvantage at Minnesota State, and three consecutive road trips that totaled almost 10,000 miles, the Lion coaching staff always had an answer. Masterful halftime adjustments. Minnesota State had 35 YARDS TOTAL OFFENSE in the second half. A daring fake punt call from their own 10 yard line against Harding. Overcoming the triple option. Facing playoff opponents with a combined record of 56-7 and beating them all. The Lions coaching staff simply got the job done.
- PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER-The turning point of the season had to be the Midwestern State game. Two interceptions by Perez. A fumble by Carandale Hale(who accounted for 1,200 combined yards) returned for a touchdown. 539 total yards given up. Despite all that, the Lions never quit, played tough, and were in a position to win the game had they been able to make just one more defensive stop. There were questions. There were doubts. What there wasn’t? No finger-pointing. No blaming each other, and no outward frustration. Just a quiet determination to fix the problems, get back to work and not to have it happen again. And it didn’t.Lion Fans, what we witnessed this season was indeed special. It was a privilege and honor to watch. It was a bonding of team and coach to become one. To, as Vince Lombardi once said, “Catch excellence.” And that they did. They became Champions.