The Wichitan

Football’s journey to the playoffs

Kelsey Purcell

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Marcus Wilkerson, mechanical engineering freshman, holds tightly to an Eastern New Mexico causing a group tackle on Sept. 12. Photo by Topher G. McGehee

Marcus Wilkerson, mechanical engineering freshman, holds tightly to an Eastern New Mexico causing a group tackle on Sept. 12. Photo by Topher G. McGehee

Three seconds.

In just three seconds, the team thought its season was over. The game against Eastern New Mexico University on Nov. 12 decided whether or not the Mustangs would be conference champions, or potentially put an end to their season. In the final seconds of the game, the Greyhounds scored the winning touchdown, and left the Mustangs without a conference championship and a feeling that their season was over. However, the team received the news on Nov. 13 that they claimed the seventh and final spot in the NCAA Division II playoffs.

To spectators, it may have seemed like the entire season was defined based off of just those three short seconds, but as the Mustangs continue their journey in advancing to the playoffs, they reflect on everything it took to get them there.

“We’ve never given up. Nobody on the team has given up. There have been some games where it seemed like maybe we were out of it, maybe we couldn’t come back, but we always just keep playing because we still have a chance,” Quade Coward, senior quarterback, said.

CLOSE GAMES

There were many close games for the Mustangs this season, where they fought back in the last few minutes of the game to come back and win.

Coward described how those moments feel.

“We’ve come from behind in what feels like a 2-minute drill pretty much every game,” Coward said. “I try not to overthink things. It’s just a matter of existing for those few seconds before I either take the ball myself or get the ball into the hands of the guys who are going to make the plays. Those guys are the true heroes and the backbone of this team.”

Drew Bolin, sophomore linebacker, agreed.

“There have been lots of games where we were down, and it came down to the last minute, and we came back and won,” Bolin said.

One of those games includes the team’s game against No. 4 ranked Texas A&M-Commerce where the Mustangs fought back in the final minute of the game to continue a four-game-winning-streak, and steal the Lion’s national ranking.

“Beating Commerce this year was a redemption shot for us since they beat us last year,” Bolin said. “It felt great.”

However, the week after beating Angelo State University, the team ended its six game winning-streak in a heartbreaking loss to West Texas A&M.

“That was a scary moment, but I never had any doubt that we’d be able to bounce back,” Coward said.

COME BACK

And comeback they did. The next weekend during the team’s Homecoming game, the Mustangs defeated the UT Permian Basin 76-21.

“When we started the game against Permian Basin, and landed that huge throw, and then the next play Vinny ran it in, it was just like bang, bang,” Coward said. “That was one of my favorite moments because we truly started the game off fast, and never looked back.”

The team continued into its next game keeping on that same mindset as it took on its rival, Tarleton State University.

“One big moment I really liked was when [Tristan] Shearman got the game-winning interception against Tarleton, then we got to do our victory formation, and take a knee,” Coward said. “It was a team effort. When we start clicking, it looks beautiful.”

Rich Renner, defensive coordinator, agreed that the wins were a thing of beauty.

“A lot of our wins had a lot of the grace of God in a sense that everything had to play out just perfectly for those wins to happen,” Renner said. “We could not have written a better movie script, or chapter in a book.”

That big victory against Tarleton put the Mustangs in a position to claim the title of Conference Champions as long as they could win their last game of the season against Eastern New Mexico University. It seemed like everything was going their way, but then, devastation. The team lost in the last three seconds of the game, losing not only the championship title, but also a guaranteed spot in the playoffs.

“I felt really sad, especially for all of the seniors. They were all depressed thinking that was the last football game they’d ever play,” Bolin said.

Coward, who has played a crucial role in the success of this season and even has a hashtag started by his teammates “#In14WeTrust,” was one of those seniors.

“The scariest part was not knowing whether or not I was done forever,” Coward said. “We had little mistakes all game. There were many opportunities to put points on the board, or stop a run, so it wasn’t all about that final play.”

Renner said he thinks that moment was a time for the team to grow.

“We had to learn to be on the other side of it, and lose a close ball game with three seconds to go after we were up, and you only hope that our character, our team bonding, our discipline, and the mental state of our team are strong enough to handle that stuff,” Renner said.

Adam Hill, senior linebacker, said the loss did not discourage him because of the strong bond the players share.

“This team has been in plenty of tight spots together. We’ve been in situations where the world is kind of falling down around us, and we have come together in those situations, and have come out on top many times. That’s how we know we can count on each other,” Hill said.

THE BRACKET

Hope was not lost. The team met on Nov. 13 to watch the playoff brackets come up.

“I was sweating, my heart was pounding. We didn’t know if we were going to make it, we see the other names popping up on the board, then we see Commerce come up as No. 4, and that made me start to worry even more,” Coward said. “Sure enough, we popped up on the board shortly after them. The whole anxiety of that was gone immediately, and the excitement started to creep in. We’re getting another opportunity. There’s way too much talent on this team to not be playing still. We got another chance.”

All of the players share his excitement.

“It’s a very special feeling knowing that you’re one of 28 teams left playing. At the end of the season you look back, and you appreciate and you’re very honored and humbled for the opportunity to be in the playoffs. It’s a remarkable feat to do,” Renner said. “We feel that God has a plan for us, just because of how we lost on Saturday, I truly believe He has something bigger for us in the playoffs.”

Being able to go to playoffs took more than the players just showing up on Saturday evenings. There is much more to their story.

“It’s practice, it’s meetings, it’s film, it’s weights, it’s conditioning,” Renner said. “For us to come together at the end of the game when it counts, to be able to have the courage, the togetherness, the camaraderie to rebound, and to be able to take the lead, and be able to hold the lead to win the football game takes a lot of character and discipline and hard work.”

Renner said there is a special type of discipline that must be achieved in the game of football.

“There’s 11 people who have to be on the same page every play of every game in order for it to be successful,” Renner said. “If one guy breaks down, if one guy goes the wrong way, if one guy false starts, if one guy misses his block, if one guy misses a tackle, it effects the whole team.”

The team says it is able to connect on the field because of the bond the players have off of the field.

“I think our story is just a bunch of normal guys, talented guys, from totally different backgrounds. Nobody is the same person, and somehow we all make it work, we all mesh together,” Coward said.

Bolin agreed.

“We’re all really close,” Bolin said.

CLOSE-KNIT PLAYERS

The team even has a special bond with people outside of its program. At the beginning of the season, during fall camp, there was an attempted robbery of Leroy McIlhaney, the program’s biggest fan’s, bike. The players protected their own, and chased down the thief.

“We were going to lunch. I was just walking down the street, and I hear Coach Renner yelling from behind me ‘hey, stop that guy!’ and I turned around, and saw a guy on Leroy’s bike. I knew that wasn’t right, so I took off running, and chased after him, and tackled him to the ground,” Hill said. “As soon as I took action I had 50 other dudes running right behind me, so I think that speaks a lot about the kind of people we have on this team.”

Additionally, the team reached out to a local Pop Warner team.

“We had some Pop Warner kids who came and played, scrimmaged and practiced on our field one day after our practice, and to see our kids go over there and play with those young kids, and see those young kids’ faces and how they looked up to our players, and to watch them coach [the kids] on how to catch a ball, it was just neat to see,” Renner said. “Those kids wanted to play so hard because they knew that Midwestern’s football team was watching them. It was neat to see an older generation helping out a younger generation.”

Later in the season, a player’s mother was in the hospital in critical condition, and the group came together yet again for one of their own.

“[A player’s] mom was in the hospital and they thought she was going to die, and we prayed as a team. I don’t know whether it helped or not, but I guarantee it helped him on a comfort level to let him know that we have his back,” Renner said.

Renner said that with the chaos going on in the country right now with people fighting over their differences, it is nice to have something to bring everyone together.

“Sports break down the walls and the barriers of our society. Everybody gets along, and has a common denominator. There’s not bickering, and there’s not a color issue, and there’s not a religious issue, it’s all about football. We’re all on the same team,” Renner said.

Renner said he hopes to continue this trend of togetherness in the playoffs.

“We’ve never won an away game in the playoffs,” Renner said. “We want to buy another week to spend together as a team because once this season is over, the seniors leave, and the younger guys take over, and then you filter in new freshmen.”

Coward added that the team is going into the playoffs with momentum in their favor.

“Every year that we’ve gone to the playoffs in the last six years has been off of a high, like a big victory or winning the conference. We’ve never gone into the playoffs having lost the game the week before, so I think that’ll be a huge deal,” Coward said. “How we responded to losing to West Texas this year, and how it felt losing on Saturday will be a huge driving factor to succeed this Saturday.”

On the contrary, Bolin said he wants to forget about the past and start fresh.

“It’s a new year in the playoffs, we start off 0-0. It’s the most important game of the year. I hope we have a good week of practice because we’re playing a very good team,” Bolin said.

Overall, Renner said the team and coaching staff are very proud of their accomplishments.

“These young men have accomplished a lot. I take my hat off to our team, I’m just so proud of them,” Renner said. “They represent Midwestern State well.”

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