Normally, the happiest part of a fairytale is the ending. Yet every once in awhile, the conclusion sees characters left with a bittersweet tingling on the tips of their tongues.
Chapman football has had a storybook season in 2019, make no mistake. However, a runaway year of firsts and perfect records came screeching to a halt Nov. 30, when Minnesota’s Saint John’s University stepped onto Wilson Field in the second round of the National Collegiate Athletic Association and took down the Panthers by a final score of 55-26.
“You can never not celebrate the accomplishments that you’ve made, otherwise it’s just not an accomplishment,” junior linebacker Dillon Keefe said in a postgame press conference. “Yeah, this is a bummer that we lost. But we’ve just got to keep it in perspective that we did a lot this year.”
On a cloudy Saturday afternoon, with a stiff 55-degree breeze blowing across the stands, the Panthers tried to muster up a comeback after trailing since early in the second quarter. “We’re this close,” players on the sidelines implored to one another during the first half, holding up two fingers a microscopic distance apart. “We’re this close.”
Perhaps they were. Multiple players postgame mentioned they felt mentally and physically ready to take on Saint John’s. Yet after rashes of injuries to both their offensive and defensive corps, after weeks upon weeks of practice, after a triple-overtime game the prior week, the Panthers simply looked drained at points throughout the second half. Blood oozed from their elbows and knees, dripping off cuts and bruises to the impenetrable, undefeated skin they’d upheld throughout the season.
Keefe, for one, has been everywhere for Chapman in 2019. He’s sacked quarterbacks, stuffed runners, intercepted passes and forced fumbles, even throwing and rushing for touchdowns on the offensive end. He blocked two field goals on this Saturday. But in the fourth quarter, Keefe walked off the field, plopped down on a bench behind rows of players on the sidelines and leaned his head back to the heavens in a display of frustration. In the postgame press conference, he measured his breathing, seemingly holding back tears.
“(Saint John’s) just started to mesh a little bit, not that we didn’t make changes and everything, but they just started to do really well play call-wise against some of the defenses that we ran,” Keefe said, with a shake of his head. “It was just up to us to make the plays, and sometimes we didn’t make the plays.”
Saint John’s came into the game sporting one of the top-ranked passing attacks in the entirety of Division III football, thanks to the play of senior quarterback Jackson Erdmann, who’d thrown for over 3,800 yards. After a scoreless first quarter from the Johnnies, he wasted no time carving up the Panthers’ secondary like a turkey on Thanksgiving, finishing with 458 yards passing and five touchdowns on the day.
We’ve got fourteen more minutes of footballRicky Medeiros, senior defensive end
Meanwhile, Chapman had multiple opportunities to push the ball into the end zone in the first half, but couldn’t finish drives with anything more than a couple of field goals.
“We made more mistakes than them, is really what seemed to set us apart,” sophomore running back Tanner Mendoza said in the press conference postgame. “I don’t think we were physically outmatched, mentally outmatched. We just, when things started to get going for us, one little thing would happen or someone would say, miss a block or there’d be a miscue or something.”
But anyone who’d seen the Panthers play this season would’ve known that no matter the score, no matter the odds, they’d fight tooth and claw until their last breath. And after another touchdown toss by Erdmann pushed the Johnnies’ lead to 48-13 early in the fourth quarter, senior defensive end Ricky Medieros – sitting on the sidelines with the rest of a defense that had been frantically sprinting back and forth in attempts to contain the Saint John’s quarterback – rallied the troops for a last stand.
“We’ve got fourteen more minutes of football,” yelled Medeiros, who’d tallied a season-high three sacks in the game. His screams of support was met with a single sentiment: “take a chance.”
So they did, going down with guns ablazing, calling for sophomore quarterback Reed Vettel to whip out his six-shooter from his holster and fire off pass after pass. He threw the ball twenty-five times in the quarter in total, finding the end zone twice. When it was all said and done, the Panthers found themselves still thoroughly vanquished – but the final score of 55-26 looked just a bit better than 48-13.
“It was important that we scored that last touchdown. And so we were very involved in getting that done,” Owens said. “The thing that was going through my mind was to be able to remind our players of the things that we accomplished over this season and through this journey and to put those in perspective.”
Thus, the book closes on football’s 2019 season. Yet, as Owens alluded to in the team’s final postgame huddle of the year, perhaps we shouldn’t view their story as a book – rather, a chapter in the program’s history, one that signals a turning point of valor. He told them to be proud. He challenged the freshmen to take the team to new heights. He put responsibility on himself and his team to continue moving forward.
“Don’t look back, don’t look sideways,” Owens said in the huddle. “We just have more road to travel.”
Louisa Marshall contributed to this reporting