A SCIAC championship completes a 20-year effort to return to winning
by Jolene Nacapuy
photography by Autumn Simon
As the clock counts down to end the fourth quarter and the game, the crowd cheers and tears of joy begin to run down the faces of the La Verne football team. A loud buzzing sound echoes throughout Ortmayer Stadium. The game is over. The team completed the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference undefeated and as champions against the Cal Lutheran Kingsmen Nov. 14. Iced water from orange coolers is poured on everyone, left and right. The noisemakers from the crowd grow louder and louder. This familiar feeling has returned to the University of La Verne, along with the shiny gold SCIAC trophy. The football program at the University of La Verne started in 1921 and entered the SCIAC in 1926. The program won its first SCIAC championship in 1975 under Roland Ortmayer, who was head coach from 1948 to 1990. During his time, he won two championships in 1975 and 1982. After working under Roland for 21 years, Rex Huigens took over as head coach in 1991. Rex helped lead the team to three more SCIAC championships, with back-to-back undefeated regular seasons and their first ever playoff appearance. Don Morel, Rex’s offensive coach, took over in 1995. In his first year, he led the team to another undefeated season and another SCIAC championship. After 20 seasons, he stepped down before the 2007 season and finished with a 48-59 record. Andrew Ankeny had no luck and the team went on a 19-game losing streak. He had to win at least four games in 2010 — when he failed to do that, he was let go in 2010, finishing 4-32. Then, Chris Krich opened the doors to a whole new ball game.
After four seasons of losing streaks, 2015 became a whole new season. The shiny, golden championship trophy with the words “SCIAC” on the top gold plate finally had the words “2015 University of La Verne” on it. Twenty years later, it returned home. “It took a while to get a good head coach, along with a staff that helps the players, which I think we have that now for the long haul. The bottom line in all of that is we didn’t have good enough players to win the conference,” Rex says.
The Rex era
In his first two years as head coach, Rex led the team to win 14 games, losing three, and came up short of a SCIAC championship. In his third year in 1993, the team went 7-2 and captured the SCIAC championship, Rex’s first as head coach. However, back then, even if a team won the conference, it did not guarantee a spot in the playoffs. Instead, a committee chose the teams, and La Verne was one of the unlucky ones. This helped the team work harder the following year to make a statement.
In Rex’s approach to the game plan, he made sure the players played with integrity and hard work. He would see their strengths and was able to put them in a situation to get them working. “I think the other teams did as good, but never better than us, and analyzing who played well, who didn’t, what mistakes were made, bad calls — we’re always looking what we as coaches did wrong first before the players,” Rex says.
Rex and his staff worked every day of the week to shape up the team and would practice five days a week for two hours. He did not make practices long because he knew education was more important and wanted his players to enjoy their social lives. The aspect of conditioning was emphasized. Back in the 1990s, they did not have a strength coach and there was no such thing as off-season conditioning, but players would still hit the weight room to earn a start or more playing time.
The following year in 1994, it was a time for redemption to prove they were worthy of a spot. The team went 9-0 and were chosen by the committee, which helped punch a ticket to the NCAA Division III playoffs for the first time to face St. John’s College in Minnesota. Their run was cut short, falling 51-12. When it was time to call it quits in 1995, Don Morel was ready to step in with a team already ready for another winning season. His team went 9-0 that season year and won the conference. However, they were not chosen for the playoffs, which was the last time La Verne saw the light of playoffs.
High expectations for a new coach
The La Verne Athletic Association search committee interviewed many candidates for Andrew Ankeny’s replacement. After many candidates, Chris Krich was chosen to fill the role in February 2011. Rex Huigens was a part of that committee. He thought Chris shared the values the University promoted. “I was excited right at the beginning and knew he would be a great fit for La Verne,” Rex says.
Prior to La Verne, Chris served three seasons as defensive coordinator at Lakeland College in Wisconsin and five seasons at Millikin University in Illinois. Stepping into the role, he had a tough time adjusting because it was his first head-coaching job. He knew La Verne’s program had been struggling, but he knew it could be successful. “We started off this program doing the main thing I know, which is to give great effort, and you have to be able to work hard,” Chris says. “To change the mind frame to, ‘Hey, we can win football games’ was tough.”
One of the first things Chris wanted to incorporate was a strength program and emphasized the importance of off-season conditioning and weight training. Players would hit the weight room and work with the University’s first strength and conditioning coach, Matt Durant, who has been with La Verne since 2002. Matt had a different relationship with each head coach. Each coach and staff had different personalities, and coaching methods changed each time. How they dealt with the team made the biggest difference from Matt’s perspective. “My vision and (Chris’) vision is the same and we look at it like a collaboration,” Matt says. “He lets me do my job and I have his back like a brother.” Matt gets up at 4 a.m., ready to train student athletes at La Verne. “As a strength coach, you’re there to help guide, and maybe a day when they just don’t have it, you’re there to kick them in the backside a little bit, get them going, there to challenge them, and see what they can do,” he says.
When players work with him, they go from running to lifting weights — nothing is left behind. “It is more of what my players don’t do,” Matt says. “They do everything, working on continual progress through the off-season of strength and power condition and trying to get faster, increase their body weight and strength.” Under Matt, players would be given packets of things to do over the winter break and January term, before the real work would start. In April, they would attend “strength and conditioning with limited football instruction,” where coaches run them for four days a week for four weeks. “(Matt’s) not in there to be their drill sergeant, but to make sure they’re doing things right,” Chris says.
With the players locked in to the importance of workouts with Matt, they also had to interpret the game plans taught by Chris and coaching staff. They developed and built strategies with one another, watching videos of opposing teams. These methods helped Chris and the coaching staff earn the 2015 SCIAC Coaching Staff of the Year award.
On the offensive side, they were taken care of by offensive coordinator Richard Worsell. He entered the La Verne program the same time as Chris. Rich spent two seasons as offensive coordinator at Illinois College, and before that, spent three seasons as the passing coordinator at Millikin University. At La Verne, Rich wanted the team to become closer, not just as teammates, but also as brothers.
“Our culture as a team is more important than any playbook I could write. We needed to contribute to become closer and needed to open up and be vulnerable and connect with each other,” he says. In the 2015 season, La Verne had one of the best offenses in the nation, ranking 45th in the nation in total offense with 444.1 and committed the 17th fewest turnovers in the country.
Going hand-in-hand with the offense is the defense, which makes sure the field has the La Verne offense in most of the game. A strong soul stepped into the program as defensive coordinator: Oscar Rodriguez. He is a two-time cancer survivor and a veteran in the coaching aspect. His most recent job was associate head coach and defensive coordinator at Garden City Community College in Kansas. He also served as the team’s special teams coordinator, recruiting coordinator and director of operations. His impact not only affected the program as a whole, but also the players. Many the players see him as an inspiration. One of the first things he said at the first day of camp that all players remember was that they should put their ring size on their lockers because they were going to win the SCIAC championship.
Working with him was different than with any other coach. “He expects your top performance in anything, and that’s what not only I love about him, but the team,” senior linebacker Matt Canlas says. “He pushes you to be the greatest and no matter how much or how hard he gets on you, you always know that he’s doing it because he loves you and wants the team to be successful.” With the addition of Coach Rodriguez to the staff this year, he was a difference maker. He helped guide the team to become fearless. He rebuilt a broken and doubtful team and pulled their confidence from within them.
One of the main things Chris and the coaches look for in players is passion. “We want guys that really are football players, not guys that want to say that they are football players and take their pictures with their locker and put it on Instagram all the time, that type of show-off stuff. You have to have passion to play because it’s not all about winning. Don’t get me wrong, I want to win every football game, but it’s about doing things the right way,” Chris says.
Finding students is one thing, but finding a student-athlete that will fit in the La Verne football culture is another. Since it is a non-scholarship program, it is a little hard to get student-athletes to choose La Verne for football, since many have the dream of being recruited by top schools like USC or Notre Dame. An average of 50-60 freshman per year come to campus, and some stay overnight to see what it is like to be a part of the La Verne family. “It takes guys with passion, understanding and want to be great teammate. That’s what it takes to be a La Verne football player,” Chris says.
The La Verne football program did not remember what it was like to win, so with the addition of the new coach, many thought that would be the end of the losing streak — but that did not mean it would happen right away. In his first two seasons as head coach, Chris led the team to a 4-5 season record in both years. The following year, the team lost one more than the following, and finished 3-6. Last season, the team added another loss to the column and finished 2-7. It seemed that the team efforts were declining, but hope was not completely lost.
In the 2014 season, the team won its first game against George Fox University, and things seemed to look up. Though from there, everything went downhill, as the team faced loss after loss, and its only win came against the Pomona-Pitzer Sagehens.
This season, the team came back with high hopes of turning its season around. In the beginning of the 2015 season, the team faced George Fox University once again and won. In their following game, they lost. It seemed to be the same story as the 2014 season, and the disbelievers were back. “When I first got here, people told me that we’d never win and part of the reason why I took this job was because they told us that. And when you tell me I can’t do something, I’m going to try to go and do it. That’s the mentality of not just myself, but the coaches and players we have,” Chris says.
The sweet smell of victory
The team began SCIAC play against the Occidental Tigers and came out with the win. The following week, they defeated Claremont-Mudd-Scripps for homecoming and then Whittier. But many thought a loss would follow, as the Leopards were set to face the Redlands Bulldogs, a team they had not beaten since 1995 — but the Leopards surprised many with a 49-42 win. That win sparked more fire in the determination of the La Verne football team to carry out the rest of the season undefeated. After a 49-35 win against Pomona-Pitzer, La Verne clinched a share of the SCIAC championship. The players were driven to seal that title, but it all came down to the following game against Cal Lutheran. Both teams played strong, but La Verne stayed in the lead.
That was not the only thing many were cheering for that day. In the last 10 seconds of the third, senior running back Travis Sparks-Jackson ran for 41 yards, becoming La Verne’s all-time leading rusher, surpassing Matthew Biggers, who set the record in 2013 with 2,844 yards. Travis finished his collegiate career with 3,046 yards, with 1,521 yards from the 2015 season alone, ranking 15th in the nation. “It was awesome, but it wasn’t just about me,” Travis said. “I have to give the credit to the offense for blocking, the coaches for trusting in me and my team for believing in me.”
The game clock ran down, cheers went up, players ran to the middle of the field, coaches were soaked with water and ice from the orange coolers to celebrate the win and taking sole possession of the SCIAC championship. This win also marked La Verne’s first win over the Kingsmen since 2000. “I still get chills thinking about it because I know how hard they work in the off-season because I demand a lot from them,” Matt Durant says. “These guys gave me everything they had, something you can’t put a price tag on, and that’s effort, sweat and energy. The satisfaction of watching them succeed gets me emotional just thinking about it, and it’s very humbling that I got to be a part of it this year.”
La Verne faced the No. 3 ranked University of St. Thomas in the NCAA Division III National Championship First Round, and traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota to face the Tommies at O’Shaughnessy Stadium. The Tommies stayed in the lead since the beginning and the Leopards efforts were not enough to get past, ending their season. It was not exactly the ending they wanted, but were happy at how far they have come. They finished the season 8-2 overall and 7-0 in SCIAC play. “It was a great experience. I’m happy for our players and coaches. But for those players in the amount of things we asked them to do and to trust what we were trying to teach them,” Chris says. “It wasn’t that we were more talented than anybody else, it was the fact that we played for each other. We just had it, and it’s hard to explain.”
A bittersweet ending
Taking down their names with their number on the side from their empty green steel lockers marks the end of an era for the 2015-16 season for the football players. You may see players and even coaches from time to time sporting their SCIAC championship rings, in titanium, silver or gold, with their names on one side and Leopards on the other. The words “SCIAC Champions,” surrounded by shiny jewels and with LV in the middle, adorn the rings. “Our season was the perfect way to go out as seniors,” Travis said. “Even though we achieved all the accolades and well-deserved rings, what I appreciate most are the memories made with Leopard family.”
There are high expectations for the team next season. Any new changes, are up to Coach Krich and the coaching staff. The players strive to be all in, and like the La Verne football team says, they strive to “RYFP,” or “reach your full potential.”
Many hope to keep the winning season in the La Verne football program alive, but work still has to be done in every aspect. “We’re going to continue to be successful here for a long time, and just let people question us because ‘Why not us?’ and every time someone doubts us, it just puts a little more fire in determination in us and we’re going to go for it,” Chris says.
It took 20 years for the golden SCIAC trophy to return to La Verne. With the right coach and coaching staff, it made it easier to lead. This season, the team had something that had been missing for the last two decades. Rex believes coaching is just a part of the success, but it comes down to who he is coaching.
“It’s ability and attitude and if they are coachable,” Rex says. “Those things come together and they had that combination this year.” They were tough enough, both offensively and defensively, and things came together. The future of the program is in good hands.
With the changed culture and mindset of the players, the football program was able to reclaim the highly-coveted championship trophy after a 20-year struggle.