Garrett Cheadle, CMS Football Take Historic Seasons into Sixth Street Trophy Game

Garrett Cheadle, CMS Football Take Historic Seasons into Sixth Street Trophy Game

CLAREMONT, Calif. - Tradition has long since maintained that the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps football team plays the Sixth Street Rivalry game against its arch-rivals from Pomona-Pitzer in the season finale every year. 

So much for tradition. 

The Stags do close out the regular season as normal, making the road trip (in this case, literally just the one road) to Merritt Field to play the Sagehens on Saturday at 1 p.m. But this year, it won't be the season finale, as CMS has already clinched its first-ever NCAA Division III Tournament bid by securing at least a share of the league title.

As you can imagine, though, the Stags aren't too keen on the idea of sharing, especially if beating their inter-consortial rivals means they can keep it all to themselves. 

"It's a big game for us," said sophomore quarterback Jake Norville. "We've already secured the playoff bid, but we want to get the outright conference championship -- and, you know, it's the school across the street, so it's a big game for pride."

Last year, Pomona-Pitzer pulled out the win on the final play of regulation, catching a desperation pass that popped in the air after it bounced off a player's helmet (followed by a two-point conversion on a crossing pass just over the goal line). It's an ending that has stuck with the returning players for 360-plus days, and has them ready to treat the finale as if their playoff lives were still at stake.

"We need to get that Sixth Street Trophy back over here," said senior defensive back Mackenzie Cooney. "That's what our motivation is this week; we aren't even thinking about playoffs yet."

The Stags come in at 7-2 overall and 6-0 in the SCIAC, giving them a chance to become the first team in program history to go undefeated through conference play. The 1987 team, which was the last one to win a conference title 31 years ago, was 4-0-1 in league play, but due to a quirk in the league rules at the time, the "tie" was actually a 1-1 split in two games with Occidental (everybody played one other league team twice, but it only counted as one game in the standings, a win for a team that swept, or a tie if they split). CMS is also regionally ranked at No. 10, a first for the program, and is getting votes in the NCAA Division III Top 25. 

A major reason why the Stags are in this position has been the play of junior running back Garrett Cheadle, who has rushed for 1,275 yards (enough to cover the distance from Zinda Field to Merritt Field and back again -- with about 100 yards to spare), ranking seventh in the nation in Division III in rushing yards at 141 per contest. He set the single-game school record with 274 yards against Whittier on Oct. 27, breaking the old mark of 261 set by Chris Dabrow in 1987, and is now 211 yards away from the school record for a season (1,486), set by Dabrow in that same 1987 season. 

Last year, Cheadle split the rushing load evenly with classmate Spencer Sheff, with Cheadle carrying the ball 95 times for 493 yards and six touchdowns and Sheff running 93 times for 432 yards and eight scores. This year, Sheff was lost for the season in the first quarter of the season opener after only four carries, and Cheadle has since been put in the position of doubling his workload. 

Well, actually more than that. Due to an experienced offensive line and a ball-control offense that ranks in the top 10 nationally in time of possession, there have been a lot of running plays this year. Cheadle has carried it 238 times himself (out of the team's total of 443), and will likely triple his 95 carries from a year ago. He ran the ball 41 times alone in last week's win over Chapman (for 173 yards) which clinched the NCAA bid for the Stags, and will likely see a lot of the football against the Sagehens, and against whoever the opponent is in the NCAA Tournament. 

Head Coach Kyle Sweeney is quick to point out, though, that Cheadle's contributions extend way beyond his stat line.

"Garrrett has been special this year running the ball, obviously," said Head Coach Kyle Sweeney," but what really jumps off the film at me is how he's blocked. The number of cut blocks he's had, and big blocks he's had for other people has been incredibly impressive. But more than anything, what's made him successful is his heart and desire and the way he goes after it; the way he practices hard and takes scout team reps. It's exactly what you want out of the guy who right now is your star player."

Norville, who has had a quietly impressive season in his own right as a game manager behind center, with nine touchdown passes and only two interceptions, has had maybe had the best vantage point of anyone at seeing what has made Cheadle and the running game so effective.

"He's a great back; he has amazing vision," Norville said. "Our o-line has been blocking great this year. It's probably the best o-line I've ever seen or played with, and it's great to play behind them and give the ball to Cheadle and know he's going to get four, five, six yards every play. It's pretty easy to throw the ball efficiently when there's nine guys in the box worrying about Cheadle."

One of his Cheadle's most vocal supporters this year has been Sheff, who has acted as another assistant coach on the sidelines once he was no longer able to be part of the platoon in the backfield. He is quick to point out the source of Cheadle's success.

"Just his work ethic," Sheff said. "Every play, he's running through people taking hits. He's getting 20, 30, even 40 carries in a game sometimes, and he just keeps going. You can't stop the kid, just because he works so hard."

In fact, when Cheadle had a 15-yard carry to break the school rushing record against Whittier and came out of the game to a round of applause, Sheff was the first player to greet him when he got back to the sidelines, as excited as if he broke the record himself. 

"That's what it's all about," Sheff said. "We all need to be supporting each other, because it's football, and everyone's always a play away, and the next guy has to step up."

His coach wasn't surprised to see that on the game film at all. 

"Spencer is exactly what you want out of a captain and a teammate," said Sweeney. "He's always up-beat and he's a team-first guy. I think that's why we are where we are right now. Yes, we've had athletic performances, but more than anything as a group, we've been able to put the team first. Whether that means running out the clock instead of putting points on the board, or whether that means we sacrifice a little bit of individual things so that the team is successful, we've done a really, really good job of that this year."

Although he won't be taking part in this year's Sixth Street rivalry, and the NCAA bid is already in the CMS pocket, Sheff still considers this weekend a big game. 

"Oh, it's the biggest," he said. "We're looking forward to this one more than any one. We need that Sixth Street Trophy back for sure."

He also hopes that Cheadle can find a way to get 211 more yards over the next two weeks and add another program record to his historic season.

"I'll be cheering him every step of the way," Sheff said.

The Sheff family can hopefully forgive him if he doesn't have much of a voice left for Thanksgiving.