Wednesday, November 6, 2019
Lynn Ramsey - Florida Catholic
MIAMI GARDENS | How does a first-year football team rebound from giving up a 99-yard kickoff return to start a game?
St. Thomas University’s team is better learning how to fight in their first season of existence. The Bobcats’ next lesson, as proved by a 37-20 loss to Ave Maria Oct. 28, is to keep the game within reach early.
“There’s a lot of fight in these guys, and it’s a matter of putting it together and doing the little things correctly,” said St. Thomas football coach Bill Rychel. “These guys have a lot on their plate, a lot of expectations that every good competitor has. It’s just a process.”
Part of that process is learning the life of a college student-athlete. Most of the athletes on St. Thomas’ team are freshmen.
That leaves another challenge for a new team. The Bobcats have been together for three months. Unlike long-term programs, where freshmen can rely on veteran players to show them the ropes, STU football players are learning on the fly how to juggle St. Thomas’ rigorous academics and college football.
“The guys are going to college for the first time. They just had midterms for the first time,” Rychel said. “There’s a lot of challenges. They’ll get more comfortable with being a student-athlete (so) that won’t be as much of a distraction sometimes as we move forward.”
One familiar part of the process is competition for positions. Robert Armes has led the stable of St. Thomas University running backs, running for 586 yards and three touchdowns. John Israel-Cooper has caught 31 passes for 435 yards and three touchdowns, while D’AMaunte Oliver has 27 catches for 408 yards and a team-high six touchdowns.
Linebacker Jayson Contreras, linebacker Shariff Rodriguez, defensive lineman Michael Torrence and linebacker Donnell Bennett are providing leadership for the defense. Contreras leads the team in tackles with 60, while Torrence leads the defense with 13 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
“Coming together, playing at different high schools, we have a short time to come together,” said Bennett, a Cardinal Gibbons graduate. “We have to work on things, we have to earn that trust that the man next to you will do his job and play for you. That’s starting to come along. We’re starting to play as a team and starting to build each other up.”
The competitions are far from over, as illustrated by Kalani Ilimaleota getting his second start against Ave Maria. He supplanted Jordan Sepulveda for the Allen game and threw for 143 yards and one touchdown. Sepulveda had thrown for 689 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions.
“For me, starting my first college game was scary,” Ilimaleota said. “But I just had to work into it. I’m kinda getting a hang of it now. We had to learn each other, build as a team. I think we’re a pretty good team. We just need to work on teamwork, that’s all.”
TRYING TO WIN AT HOME
After losing their season opener 38-14 against Thomas More University on Sept. 7, the Bobcats have won three road games, including a 38-31 win at Warner University in Lakeland on Nov. 2. They play at Kaiser University in West Palm Beach this Saturday, Nov. 9, and their final game of the season will be at home against Alabama’s Faulkner University.
The Bobcats got their first win 45-20 at Union College on Sept. 14. Jordan Sepulveda threw for 169 yards and three touchdowns. Armes ran for 192 yards and a touchdown in that win to earn Mid-South Conference Sun Division Player of the Week. The defense also picked off four Union passes. STU also won at Allen 36-23 on Oct. 21 in Ilimaleota’s first start. That gave the Bobcats not only a chance for their first home win but also a two-game winning streak.
Ave Maria, however, crushed those chances early. Fueled by Dimitrius Hirsch’s 99-yard kickoff return on the first play of the game, Ave Maria built a 31-6 lead. The Gyrenes did it behind 147 yards passing from Kristian Marks. He threw for two touchdowns, including a 33-yarder to Joshua Alexander that put Ave Maria up 31-6 with 10:43 left in the third quarter.
“We have to focus a little more and not put ourselves in bad situations,” Rychel said. “The majority of the time it was about us, and not executing and doing things. That was a good football team. Those guys have been together, the coaching staff does a great job. They played well. They didn’t make the mistakes that we were making to put themselves in bad situations.”
But after giving up two long field goals, the Bobcats (2-5) roared their offense to life. Ilimaleota found Oliver on a quick out pass, then Oliver raced for a 75-yard touchdown. The Bobcats also turned opportunistic when a bad punt snap gave the Bobcats the ball at Ave Maria’s 7. Four plays later, Ilimaleota bulled through for a 1-yard touchdown.
“Our guys were disappointed, because it was very similar to the looks that we practiced and what we expected out of them,” Rychel said. “We started a little slow, a little lack of focus with some of those big plays we gave up, but we came back and fought our tails off to try to get a little going in the second half.”
COMMUNITY LENDS SUPPORT
The Bobcats are grateful for the university community’s support. Several things drive the game experience for STU fans, including a marching band and dance teams.
Ilimaleota and Bennett both talked about the Bobcat Walk, where the band, dance team and players walk through the alumni areas before entering the field.
“They give us that extra boost and camaraderie to cheer us on before the game,” Bennett said. “The president of our university is a big help for us. He’s our drive force, he’s our hammer. And he really pushes us out into the community, so we can get that feedback.”
Rychel credits St. Thomas’ education and mission for drawing players to his team. He said that football — a sport that teaches leadership — only supplements that mission.
He also thanks the administration and Archdiocese of Miami for supporting his team.
“That’s what it takes to build a winner,” Rychel said. “These guys, for them to have a great experience, you have to have that administrative support who are willing to do things the right way.”