On Nov. 17, the Chapman football team ate ice cream floats.
Head coach Bob Owens promised them ice cream the day earlier, in a huddle at midfield of the University of La Verne’s Ortmayer Stadium. Ice cream tomorrow, Owens said, and a sea full of smiling faces erupted in cheers. A few players raised their voices.
“Nine scoops!” they yelled. “Nine scoops!”
Nine scoops – for nine victories and zero losses. Because the Panthers have just done something that’s never once been accomplished in the 25-year history of the program: compile an undefeated record over the course of a regular season.
They clinched the record under the direct midday glare of a Saturday sun, defeating La Verne by a final score of 28-17. It was no easy victory. The heat may have contributed to play that seemed sluggish at times – quarterbacks Jonston MacIntyre and Reed Vettel each threw two interceptions, with the team fumbling twice.
At practice the prior night, the atmosphere was loose, with players cracking jokes in the midst of drills – perhaps a little too loose. On Nov. 16, the Panthers were instantly reality-checked by a hungry La Verne team, who opened the game on a 10-0 run in the first quarter.
“We’re just really confident – we know we have the ability for guys to step up,” said Ricky Medieros, a senior defensive lineman after Friday’s practice. “That’s been kind of our theme this year, is ‘we’ not ‘me’ attitude.”
Someone needed to step up, indeed, after the Panthers dug themselves into an early hole. With their success in the passing game a little shaky, Chapman received a huge boost from sophomore running back Tanner Mendoza’s gritty work on the ground.
He was handed the ball on a variety of draws and sweeps 35 times – more than double the number he’d received in any game prior in his collegiate career – for a total of 133 yards. Mendoza looked gassed, breathing heavily and taking the opportunity after every offensive possession to stretch into a deep lunge and limber up his well-worn legs. Yet he was the catalyst for three touchdowns, jumping up and down and screaming in adrenaline after every score.
“We ran a lot around the outside, which gave me an edge on running through shoulder and things like that. I was able to stiff-arm and put guys in the ground,” Mendoza said. “We just took care of business, as usual; if one thing’s not working, we go to another.”
The defense did their part as well. Led by eight tackles and an interception from senior defensive back Sal Ochoa III, they held La Verne to the same 10 points until a fourth-quarter touchdown. At one point during the second quarter, a coach instructed defenders in a huddle on the sidelines to look at La Verne’s quarterback prior to the snap. He was tapping the side of his body, indicating which direction a run play was headed. Sure enough, in a subsequent possession, the running back burst to the right and the Chapman defense forced a fumble.
“The guys did a great job. They hung in there, fought, overcame adversity,” Owens said.
With the stingy defense and Mendoza’s bulldozing, the Panthers slowly gained a head of steam. Cries of “Sidelines, wake up!” rippled throughout Chapman players watching off the field. After wide receiver Spencer Corona, who totaled 135 yards in the game, repeatedly torched a La Verne defensive back, they yelled, “He can’t guard you!”
After the clock ran out on the 28-17 victory, the Panthers gathered on the field to take celebratory photos, lay their hands on the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) trophy and dump coolers of ice water on their giddy coaches. It wasn’t their most impressive game of the season. But a win’s a win, and this group now stands tall in program history.
“Ten years from now, nobody will know if it was a pretty or ugly game,” Owens said. “They’ll just know we’re 9-0. They’ll just know that in the regular season, we’re the first undefeated team in the history of the school.”
With the undefeated record, another first in program history was announced Nov. 17: the Panthers will host a Division III playoff game at their home Wilson Field, against Winfield College.