October 6, 2011

No longer the doormat

More news about: Sewanee
Sewanee hadn't won two non-conference games since 2006.
Sewanee athletics photo

“Hope is a wonderful thing, perhaps the best of things.”

But for the football program at Sewanee over the last five seasons, a record of 6-42 hadn’t left much to be hopeful about. The Tigers won just one Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference game during that time and that opponent dropped football a year later.

When former coach Robert Black stepped down in February, a group of 13 Tiger seniors had some doubts. A new coach would bring players he recruited, new offensive and defensive schemes. Would they have a role and what would that be?

But when the school hired Citadel offensive coordinator Tommy Laurendine the group saw something else.

 “We also saw an opportunity,” senior fullback Zeke Wilson. “We’ve grabbed on to that and from there everyone worked their hardest.”

And so far this season that hard work has paid off. With victories against Earlham in the opener and Puget Sound on a long road trip to Seattle, they have already doubled their win total of the past two seasons.

And though they’ve lost their first two SCAC conference games, they’ve showed they are no longer the doormat of the SCAC.  The Tigers have held fourth quarter leads the past two weeks before falling to currently unbeaten Birmingham Southern (28-21) and Millsaps (21-20), who has won or shared the SCAC title four of the last five seasons.

“The last two weeks were heartbreakers,” Laurendine said, “Sometimes that’s worse than losing 30-0.”

Still he like the way has bounced back from the tough losses.

“There’s hope there each week.” Lauren said. “We have hope that we’re going to compete and have a chance to win.”

So what does it take to turn around a team that has struggled mightily?

“I’ve tried to take a very positive approach,” Laurendine said.” I try to have an upbeat attitude daily. We’ve done some things in-house with the program to foster team unity.

“We always talk about believing in each other and believing in the team. We only have each other out there and that’s what we try to sell every week.”

Besides an upbeat attitude Laurendine has brought an offensive system that seems to fit his players well. The Tiger roster isn’t littered with behemoths on either line, so the “double slot option,” similar to what you see at Navy, Georgia Tech and on the D-III level Washington and Lee, has helped them to compete.

“Schematically, the players have bought into it and that’s been the key to why we’ve been competing and winning this year.”

And according to Wilson it’s a big change from last year. Sewanee started off last season running the option but drifted into the “I” and a little bit of everything. The unit had no clear identity.

“We could never really find ourselves,” Wilson said. “This year we are sticking to the option.”

As the fullback, Wilson occupies one of the most important roles in the scheme. Thus far, the 5-foot-11, 224-pound from Snellville, Ga., is second on the team in rushing with 207 yards with two touchdowns.

“Zeke has brought an attitude that we need on our offense -- a hard-nosed attitude,” Laurendine said. “We tried to set that tone back in the spring. This is an aggressive, attacking style of offense.

“Zeke brings that to the plate for us each play. His shoulder pads speak for himself. He’s a tough runner for us at the fullback position.”

The Tigers have been able to spread the field with the option and average nearly 280 rushing yards a game. It has kept their defense, which has suffered from some depth problems on the line, off the field. And though they do not have a touchdown pass yet this season and have completed just 17 passes, those receptions have averaged just over 17 yards.

And the team’s hard work has been productive work. They rarely spend more than two hours on the practice field each day. Wilson credits the coaching staff for bringing a professional atmosphere with crisp, scripted practices where the players are on and off the field and have time to get to their studies.

“The coaches have created a business-like atmosphere every day.” Wilson said. “And they’ve also created situations where we can bond and become a closer team, like movie night.”

Perhaps the biggest bond on the team is between the members of its senior class.

“These 13 guys have stuck it through (the tough times,)” Wilson said. “We’ve done it together and all act like brothers out there on the field.”

“We have 13 seniors that have stuck around here and endured a lot,” Laurendine said of a class that started out with over 40 members.

That has earned the respect of their new coach, along with the way they have led a young squad by example. What better example could there be than a group guys that kept working hard despite the mounting disappointment of losing week in and week out?

“To me, that’s a big number for as much as Sewanee had been losing, Laurendine said.
"To have 13 seniors, that is somewhat amazing. 

“That tells me that football is important to these guys. They stayed and endured a lot of hardship over the past three or four years. We stressed to the rest of the team that these guys deserve a winning season before they get out of here. That’s our goal.”

And through they’d have to win four of their last five games to accomplish that goal, you get the feeling that this coach and group of players has already started to establish a legacy. At least they “hope” to.

“It would be nice to look back when you are older and say I was part of a team, as a senior that helped turn Sewanee into a winning program.”

Game of the Week

Wittenberg (5-0, 3-0 NCAC) at Huntingdon (4-1) The 14th-ranked Tigers travel to Alabama with a 25-game regular season win streak. Wittenberg defeated the Hawks 48-27 back in 2004 but this is a more mature Huntingdon program. The Hawks could very well be undefeated themselves this season. They blew a 19-point second half lead to still unbeaten Birmingham Southern in overtime in Week 2. But the bottom line is that the Hawks need this game badly if they want to keep their Pool B playoff hopes alive. They are at home and have shown that they ability to score points on just about anybody. They key will be if their defense can they hold up against a big Wittenberg offensive line and cause  some turnovers.

ASC Games

Sul Ross State (1-3, 0-2) at McMurry (3-2, 2-1) The War Hawks are rolling after scoring 113 point over the past two games. The always pass happy “McMummes” have topped 100-plus rushing yards each of the past two weeks on the back of Justin Johnson, who has 182 yards on 26 carries and three touchdowns. (Yes, I know they’ve passed for over 1,100 but that what passes for balance in the Air Raid.)  The Lobos in their four games this season but will need a big effort to stay in the game this weekend in Abilene.

Howard Payne (1-4, 1-2) at Hardin Simmons (2-3, 0-3) The Cowboys enter this game in the ASC cellar after a second half implosion last week against ETBU. They should break their three-game losing streak against a Jacket team that struggles to move the football,  averaging less than 200 yards a game and under 10 points.

Mary Hardin-Baylor (4-0, 3-0) at Mississippi College (2-2, 1-1)  Can anyone stop the Crusaders march to another ASC title? The Choctaws will take their shot this Saturday after having had two weeks to prepare. It was two years ago that they shocked UMHB 17-14 in Clinton. To have a chance, they’ll have to play better defense. They’ve given up 420-plus yards a contest.

East Texas Baptist (2-3, 1-2) at Louisiana College (3-1, 1-1) The Tigers have some momentum after a big second half comeback to beat Hardin-Simmons for the first time in school history. If the Wildcats still have hopes of claiming an at large bid (Pool C), they better shake off last week’s disappointing 36-10 loss to UMHB. They led that game 10-0 in the first quarter.

SCAC Games this Week

Millsaps (2-3, 1-1) at at Austin (0-5, 0-2). Not much has gone right for the Roos thus far, but the Majors have been surprisingly disappointing this season as well.

Sewanee (2-3, 0-2) at Trinity (4-0, 2-0). In a battle of Tigers, expect Sewanee to get off to a quick start as Trinity gets used to an option attack that is tough to practice against even if you’ve had two weeks to prepare. Still it’s hard to imagine them knocking off Trinity on the road. They haven’t beaten them since the 1992 seasons and are 4-20 all-time.

Independent games

Trine (3-1) at LaGrange (2-3) Can the Panther offense can score enough points to keep up with the Thunder?

Feel free to send me your comments at jason.bowen@d3sports.com. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter (@D3Jason).

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