Saturday, December 15, 2012
Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Mount Union seniors refused to let their legacy turn sour
Seniors refused to let their dream be unmet
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The fans were waving their newspapers with the preprinted headline: "UNSTOPPABLE." The players were waving their towels.
The trophy was being passed among the Mount Union players as coach Larry Kehres stood on the podium at Salem Stadium and explained what made the difference in this 28-10 victory over St. Thomas in the Stagg Bowl.
"It was the seniors," Kehres said. "They were determined from the moment we lost last year."
Even further back than that, really. This was four years of pressure, released. Three years of coming up short, purged.
Now, I know what you're probably thinking. Pressure and "Mount Union" just don't seem to go together. For so many years, the Purple Raiders came to Salem with a gaudy record and left with the Stagg Bowl trophy. Another victory. Another championship. Ho-hum.
But things changed over the past three years, injecting this Division III title game with a deep sense of urgency. A whole group of young men came into this one staring at the possibility of seeing their eligibility expire without knowing what it was like to win a national crown.
Maybe it's hard to relate to something like that. How much success does one program need, after all? Mount Union has gone 332-24-3 in Kehres' 27 years at the helm. They'd won 10 national titles coming into Friday's game. That's a lot of celebrating and bonding. It's OK if another team gets to do that once in a while, isn't it?
But then again, we can all relate to desire, to wanting something we haven't been able to get. And nobody can deny that this Mount Union senior class had that.
Every week since the beginning of the season, they would meet on Thursdays and talk about what they wanted. Or more specifically, what they didn't want.
They didn't want to be the first senior class in two decades to fail to get Mount Union at least one championship during their tenure.
After Friday's game, they didn't have to worry about that.
Many previous editions of this game have been about the stars. Pierre Garcon. Cecil Shorts III. Explosive game-changers who seemed to be playing at a different level than everybody else on the field. "Aha!" we'd say. "So that's why these guys from Alliance, Ohio, are so good. They have THAT guy."
There was no "that guy," this year. There were only seniors. Ten on offense, seven on defense. They sprinkled the box score with big plays, and nobody hogged the spotlight.
The most outstanding player honoree was Mount Union sophomore quarterback Kevin Burke -- the only non-senior on the offense. He played well - 21 of 28 passing, 222 yards, one touchdown, no picks - but even he seemed to sense that this wasn't about him. It was about the seniors.
"This means more to them than it could ever mean to me," Burke said.
From Charles Dieuseul's blocked punt in the first quarter to Chris Denton's third quarter touchdown catch to Jake Simon's clinching fourth quarter plunge from 1 yard out, the seniors threw jabs at St. Thomas until they finally scored the decision.
This game was not easy for them, despite an early 14-0 lead. St. Thomas owned most of the second and third quarters, clawing back to within four points before the Purple Raiders pulled away.
After Isaiah Scott - a senior, of course - made the interception that thwarted St. Thomas' final good scoring chance, they celebrated.
After the game, St. Thomas coach Glenn Caruso glumly went to the interview room and talked about disappointment, accountability and learning experiences - all things this Mount Union senior class had talked about in that same interview room the previous three years. Caruso, intensity written on his face, talked about not letting this opportunity for growth pass his team by.
But before he got up to leave, Caruso said one last thing. He congratulated Mount Union.
Specifically, he congratulated the Mount Union seniors.
They had earned nothing less.