To head football coach Bob Owens, every day is a blank sheet of paper. Each day, his team writes a new story, he said. On Oct. 28, that story was about a checked box – that box was a conference championship.
For the second time in four seasons, Chapman hoisted up the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship trophy on the field. This time, the team held it at home, after a 46-38 win over California Lutheran University.
“It’s crazy, because in the beginning, during spring and summer, we all talk about this, but it’s not really tangible to your ear,” said senior linebacker Lincoln Faletoi. “But now that it’s here, it’s like, man, I can’t believe we did it. (We’re) just going check mark by check mark, doing all the things we said we were going to do.”
Crossing off that checklist was not easy for Chapman. Two interceptions, three missed extra points and an equally explosive Cal Lutheran offense made the Panthers’ route to victory difficult.
On Chapman’s second offensive play of the game, senior quarterback Ricky Bautista’s pass was intercepted and returned to Chapman’s own seven-yard line. Cal Lutheran scored a touchdown two plays later to take a 7-0 lead.
After Chapman responded with a touchdown on its next possession, Bautista threw another interception. In the span of less than 10 minutes, Bautista had doubled his interception total for the season. Despite those early mistakes, he was nearly perfect the rest of the game, completing 16 of his next 18 passes, five of which were touchdowns.
“It was coach Owens,” Bautista said. “He came over to me and pulled me aside and said, ‘Just relax, take what they give you. If it’s not there, throw it out of bounds or run the ball.’ I just had to stay within myself, relax, stay calm and believe in the offense and that’s what we did.”
Bautista’s improvement was necessary. Both he and Cal Lutheran senior quarterback Adam Friederichsen are tied for the conference lead, with 22 overall passing touchdowns. Friederichsen, who passed for 439 yards, three touchdowns and one interception, leads the conference with an average of 303.3 passing yards per game. Bautista is second at 290.7 yards per game.
The preferred targets for those quarterbacks were evident. Bautista passed to senior wide receiver Jacob Isabel for 131 yards and two touchdowns. Friederichsen, meanwhile, connected with Cal Lutheran senior wide receiver Aaron Lacombe for 176 yards and one touchdown.
Isabel leads the conference with 119.4 receiving yards per game and is second in receiving touchdowns, with nine, while Lacombe is second in receiving yards per game at 117.6 and third in receiving touchdowns, with seven.
“This was a shootout,” Owens said. “You’re just matching good players against good players. Our guys know going in that they were going to make plays and we expected of ourselves that we were going to make plays.”
That playmaking ability was also apparent in the running game. Senior running back Joe Mudie – who leads the conference with 123 rushing yards per game – ran for 153 yards and a touchdown, which came on a 70-yard run in the first quarter.
Cal Lutheran’s senior running back Chris Beeson – who is second in the conference with 11 rushing touchdowns – ran for 98 yards and two touchdowns, including a 59-yard run on a draw play late in the third quarter. The score cut down Chapman’s largest lead of the game from 16 points to nine.
“The speed was very surprising,” Faletoi said. “I can handle a bowling ball running back, we can all handle that. But (Beeson) ran one draw, he ran right down the middle and he just took off and out-ran our defensive backs and our safeties. That guy was really fast.”
The back-and-forth battle between the two offenses looked to have no end in sight. After Isabel scored his second touchdown of the game early in the fourth quarter, Lacombe responded a minute and a half later with his own touchdown. While Bautista, Isabel and Faletoi said they enjoyed how much they had to fight for the win, Owens disagreed.
“That’s them talking,” Owens said. “For me, it could’ve been 51-2 and I would have been just fine. They’re all talking different languages.”
With fewer than 10 minutes remaining in the game, Chapman’s offense went stagnant. The Panthers punted on their next two drives, leaving the game in the hands of their defense – more specifically, Faletoi’s hands.
After Cal Lutheran drove down to Chapman’s 45-yard line, Chapman forced a sack and got a stop on a short run play. On third down, Friederichsen looked across the middle of the field for his favorite target, Lacombe. To the audible dismay of Cal Lutheran fans, the ball stuck, this time, in Faletoi’s left hand.
“(Friederichsen) threw the ball and I was like, ‘If I just hit this down, we win the game,’” Faletoi said. “I was just going to hit it down and it stuck to my hand and I was like, ‘Oh, all right, I’ll take it.’”
The moment, while special for any player who’s just single-handedly secured a conference championship for his team, had a special significance to Faletoi, who was playing in his first game of the season. Faletoi, who has two children, almost quit playing football after suffering a herniated disk in his cervical spine.
“That’s a fancy term for, ‘My neck was hurting,’” Faletoi said.
Faletoi said he was concerned about his well-being for his children after the injury. He said his wife convinced him to continue playing for his love of the game, which he did for the first time Oct. 28, after an extensive rehabilitation program. He said he was very emotional following the interception.
“You have no idea,” Faletoi said. “Man, I was out of breath after that play because all the adrenaline, all the emotions took over. It’s crazy.”
One play later, Bautista kneeled the ball, crowning Chapman a conference champion once again.
“The last couple of drives, we were a little iffy on offense and then the defense went out onto the field and then Lincoln (Faletoi) sealed the deal,” said Isabel. “He put the team on his back with that last play.”
Chapman could still technically have to share the conference trophy with the University of Redlands if Chapman loses its final regular season game against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps at home Nov. 4 and Redlands wins its final two games against Cal Lutheran and Whittier College. However, Chapman’s Oct. 14 win over Redlands means it has already secured a spot over Redlands in the NCAA Division III tournament via the conference’s automatic qualifier.
“We’ll celebrate and then we’ll be back to work Monday,” Owens said. “We’ll take all this stuff and we’ll put it aside because we know that the journey is not over. We’re just in the middle.”