|It's been a pretty good run for Chapman, which has been to the playoffs twice since joining the SCIAC and is unbeaten in 2019.
Chapman athletics photo by Larry Newman
By Adam Turer
How does a D-III team create a home-field advantage, at a school of roughly 5,500 students?
It has to put in the work in the offseason, drum up support around campus, and when the lights shine brightest, win the big game. Then win another big game.
It also doesn’t hurt to have an energetic mascot.
Since joining the SCIAC in 2011, the Chapman Panthers have lost just nine home games. Five of those losses were by single digits.
The Panthers often put on a show in front of their home crowd. The family, friends, classmates, and alumni who have attended games at Ernie Chapman Stadium in 2019 have been treated to two memorable performances.
“We want Chapman to be a place that is difficult to play at,” said Panthers head coach Bob Owens. “To be part of Chapman football is to defend our home turf and make it very uncomfortable and unsettling for someone to come in here and win a football game. We want to make it a yeoman's chore to come in here and play.”
Chapman has welcomed two ranked opponents to Wilson Field this season. They have been very ungracious hosts.
First, Whitworth came to town ranked No. 10 in the country. The Panthers secured the program’s first win over a ranked opponent, 37-30. Three weeks later, the Panthers earned their second win over a ranked opponent, toppling then-No. 15 Redlands.
“We pride ourselves on making Chapman a hard place to come in and get a W,” said junior captain Dillon Keefe. “We are going to protect and continue to protect our place.”
The Panthers have earned their way onto the national radar, clocking in at No. 19 in the latest D3football.com poll. The Chapman community has the football team on its radar, too.
Chapman has lost just nine home games since 2011, when the SCIAC finally let them into the league.
11/5/11 vs. Cal Lutheran, 61-31
“I believe it was the first home game of the year, I saw a video on Instagram of the game and I zoomed in on the stands and there just weren’t many people. However, I think with the growing success of the team, people are definitely starting to take notice,” said Luca Evans. “I hear students and professors talking in my classes, and I think that overall buzz is definitely parlaying into a much better atmosphere at home games.”
Evans is a sophomore and the sports editor of the student newspaper. He has seen a shift in the excitement around campus. While student support at athletic events is still a challenge at Chapman, as it is at almost every other D-III institution, the early season success has contributed to the cultivation of a more supportive athletic culture around campus.
“Athletes do a lot of work trying to promote awareness of their games through social media, and support one another by going to each others’ games, which is another aspect that ties the campus together,” said Evans. “I certainly can tell you that home football games in my opinion didn’t carry nearly as much buzz during the fall of my freshman year.”
The players feed off of the energy of the home crowd. The Panthers have won all three of their home contests this season, including a Homecoming victory over Whittier. That win came in front of over 4,000 fans.
“We have a lot of animated players on our team this year. On those big third downs our defense faces, a lot of those guys are turning around to the crowd, getting them excited,” said senior captain Jacob Wilbanks. “There’s no better feeling after a big win than having your family come down and celebrate with you.”
The fans will have at least two more opportunities to see the Panthers play at home. Possibly a third, if they can continue this run of success.
Chapman has bucked another common D-III trend this year, building from the trenches rather than relying on veterans at the skill positions. Most of the starting skill players are first years or sophomores. Keefe, a linebacker, leads the defensive front while Wilbanks, a guard, helps anchor the offensive line.
“This year has been a lot of fun for our our offensive line. Our camaraderie feels different than years past,” said Wilbanks. “We’re all so hungry to play that we’re ready to go in and don’t skip a beat when we have the opportunity to play. Our freshmen linemen are working so hard in practice on scout team. We tell them that our success depends on them.”
The offense is putting up nearly 35 points per game and compiling over 473 yards per contest. The line leads the way for 283.8 rushing yards per game. On the other side of the ball, the defense holds opponents to just 17 points and 70 rushing yards per game.
Last season’s 5-4 record was not a total disappointment, but was frustrating. Three of the four losses were by just one score.
“We weren’t really happy with where we had ended,” said Keefe. “We knew the only way to get over that hump was to keep working harder.”
That hard work is the foundation of the program’s success. Owens has led the Panthers to two playoff appearances in the past five seasons. A third is likely if his team can maintain its intensity and intentionality.
“This group of guys has been able to embrace the success of our past and we have young guys who they have taken under their wings. Everything that our upperclassmen understand about our program, it’s imperative that we pass those on to our younger players,” said Owens. “It’s been a work in progress. It hasn’t been just this year. There are some themes that run through the current of our program. Mentorship and leadership for us is extremely important. Everything we do is an application to the whole process here. That starts with working together in the classroom and in community projects. If you only expect it on the football field, it’s just not going to happen.”
The coaching staff brought in speakers to address the team in fall camp. The players have heightened expectations by pushing themselves in the offseason when their coaches aren’t watching. Each player is assigned a mentee who they mentor each week throughout the season. The growth extends far beyond the football field.
“We learned from one of the speakers that in order to grow and better yourself as a man, you have to be not only a mentor, but a mentee. Learn from other people, listen to them, and do the same for others,” said Keefe. “When we work with each other, we hold ourselves to a higher standard. We know how to work hard together. We know our coaches have standards for us, and we have standards for ourselves.”
The upperclassmen set a goal for themselves to mentor one younger teammate each day. That mentorship includes encouragement on the practice field, assistance with homework, or general college adjustment advice. Those bonds carry over into offseason workouts.
“Those little things can go a long way. In the weight room, it’s a lot of fun picking a couple of teammates to work out with together,” said Wilbanks. “We get to know each other and we push each other to work harder. One more rep gets us each closer to our goals.”
The Panthers are hungry to return to the postseason. Winning out could earn the opportunity to host their first round game. In their previous two trips, they were sent to Linfield and Mary Hardin-Baylor, leading to two road losses by an average score of 52.5 to 15. The program is already in uncharted territory, with two victories over ranked opponents. Now, the Panthers will learn how to play with the pressure of being that ranked opponent that their competitors are eager to upset.
“Don’t let the foot off the gas,” said Keefe. “Continue winning every play, every day, working our butts off to continue where we’re going.”
“We remind each other of goals we set at the beginning of the season and that we have to stay hungry,” added Wilbanks. “We need to take every game with the same intensity and purpose as we did in those big games.”