December 13, 2012

Purple Raiders loosen up for title run

More news about: Mount Union
On the field, even after a hard-fought win against Mary Hardin-Baylor, Larry Kehres looks like he's all business. But at other times this season, he's loosened the reins on his Purple Raiders.
Photo by Dan Poel for d3photography.com 

By Adam Turer
D3sports.com

You can hear it in his voice. You can see it in the way his team dominated all year. You could see it in the way his team remained calm despite taking its first second-half lead with just five seconds to play in the national semifinal win over No. 2 Mary Hardin-Baylor.

Larry Kehres is having fun this year.

After three gut-wrenching losses in the past three Stagg Bowls, it would have been understandable for the coach with a .925 career winning percentage to press matters this season. Instead, 2012 has been pleasant for the Purple Raiders.

“I think I might have had a little more fun this year and I’ve learned to relax a little,” said Kehres. “I’ve had a good time with this group of men.”

Of the 25 seniors on the roster, only two — kicker Tyler Almeida and linebacker Jack LaForce — were members of the last national championship team at Mount Union. That 2008 squad was the last from Alliance to win the Stagg Bowl. This year marks the team’s eighth straight trip to Salem. Rather than stressing about the chance of graduating without a ring, this group has played with confidence and composure this season.

“[The seniors] have used the last three losses as a motivation to make sure we grind out good days in everything we do,” said Kehres. “They have used it in a positive way.”

The seniors have made this year easier for the coaching staff. Knowing that they don’t want to be the first group of Purple Raiders in twenty years to leave Alliance without a Stagg Bowl win, the group has been self-motivating. The seniors have been a major reason why Kehres finds himself in a more jovial mood this December.

“I feel because of the great leadership we have on this team he can actually sit back and relax a little more,” said senior running back Jacob Simon. “If we’re having a bad practice, we all kind of get on each other to pick it up and get it right. He knows we have the leaders on this team to keep everybody on the goal at hand.”

Kehres has allowed music to play on the practice field speakers during Thursday practices. He has allowed the seniors to choose the uniform combinations for each game. Allowing the team to have some fun has not detracted from the players’ focus in any way. If anything, their focus has allowed Kehres to take a step back this year and enjoy himself more than he has in years past.

“I think this team is more focused than ever on winning and being great at the little things,” said senior linebacker Charles Dieuseul. “[Coach] has mellowed out a little bit, but I wouldn’t say too much, though. He can still drop the hammer down when he needs to.” 

The coaches have not had reason to put loads of pressure on the seniors, or the rest of the team. After the disappointing end to 2011, the Purple Raiders knew what they had to do to close out 2012 the right way. Talent has never been lacking in this program, but this year’s edition found other ways to improve.

“The biggest difference I feel from last year’s to this year’s team is the willingness to sacrifice all personal goals for the sake of the team,” said Simon. “Everybody is together and we are on one page in terms of what we need to get done to win a championship. We’re hungry.”

The unselfish mentality has pervaded the locker room. Other changes are evident on the field and on the sideline. New assistant coaches have motivated their position groups. Two former defensive linemen are now starters on a dominant offensive line. Dieuseul, an All-American defensive end, moved back to middle linebacker.

“We made changes that helped our players,” said Kehres.

Those changes led to the Purple Raiders finishing the regular season with the top offense and defense in the nation. Mount Union posted six straight shutouts and allowed just seven points through the first seven games of the season. The Purple Raiders hung 72 points on not one, but two, playoff opponents. The dominance was not a result of pressuring one another; rather, it was a mindset shared across the board by every member of the program.

“I don't think anyone really felt pressured out of the seniors,” said Simon. “It was our mission to make it here at any cost. We all believed in ourselves and understood all of our responsibilities.”

Junior Collins and fellow senior Chris Denton celebrate one of Collins' first-quarter touchdowns against UMHB.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com 

The seniors know about the teams that came before them. They know that a successful season at Mount Union culminates in a championship. This is their last shot to hoist the walnut and bronze trophy. The work started shortly after the final seconds ticked off the clock at Salem Stadium on Dec. 16, 2011.

“[The seniors] understand that this is a process you must go through to get there,” said Kehres. “They have paid their dues and earned their chance to get there this year.”

The rich tradition and history of the program has long been a presence in Salem. Former champions watch home games from the sideline, reach out to current players on Twitter, and help the program financially. The current players are aware of the past, but eager to create their own legacy.

“With our alumni, it’s a process of sharing and participating,” said Kehres. “I think it helps our players. Our football family is a tight-knit one.”

Kehres is eager to see how his team bounces back from its biggest challenge to date. The Purple Raiders had not trailed in the fourth quarter of any game prior to Saturday’s win over the Cru. The start of final exams on Sunday evening helped the Purple Raiders put the semifinal win behind them quickly. Between finals and a short week to prepare for St. Thomas, the players did not have much time to celebrate or dwell on their comeback victory.

“I know on Sunday it felt like a dream, it felt surreal, but after we watched the game in films and moved on to St. Thomas, we knew that we have a job to do and that’s to win a championship,” said Simon, who rushed for the go-ahead score with five seconds to play.

While the Purple Raiders fell behind in the first quarter in several games this season, the semifinal was the first time this team has been tested late in a game. Their resilient response proved that this team can handle adversity and win under any circumstance.

“I think they liked it,” said Kehres of the narrow victory. “I think the players relish in playing in close games.”

The players have one another’s backs. It might be attributed to the Stagg Bowl losses of the last three years. It might have more to do with the senior leadership from players like Dieuseul, Nick Driskill, Antonio Tate, and Jasper Collins. Whatever the reason, there is a closeness that the players share, a camaraderie that kept them calm heading into a fourth quarter trailing by 14 points in the semifinal.

“We are a family and I have never been around a team like this before out of the years I’ve been here,” said Simon.

Having a roster full of driven players who keep each other focused on a daily basis sounds like a coach’s dream. It’s certainly helped a legendary veteran remain content despite three straight 14-1 seasons, each ending in defeat. This senior class has accomplished enough to go down as one of the most memorable in the program’s storied history, no matter Friday’s outcome.

Said Kehres: “It’s really been an enjoyable year.”

Still, coming up short in Salem for a fourth straight year would be a disappointment. The seniors have unfinished business and they know it. Making it back to Salem was one step; there’s one more box that remains unchecked heading into Friday night.

“It was a lot of pressure and we wanted that pressure,” said Dieuseul. “Being the only class in 20-odd years not winning a championship is a big deal to us and the Mount Union football program.”

You never want to be the team that didn’t do something, or win that championship.”

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