CLAREMONT, Calif. - The team buses came to pick up the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps football team this morning in front of Roberts Pavilion. The procedure was the same as any other road trip, the bags of equipment and athletic training supplies loaded underneath, the players filing in early and finding their seats, the coaches the last to board before the doors closing and the buses pulling out (right on time, of course).
But this road trip is different than any one the program has ever had.
The Stags are on their way to Whitworth tomorrow, where they will play in the first NCAA Division III Tournament game in program history in a 12 noon kickoff. CMS earned their road trip by winning the automatic bid from the SCIAC, finishing 6-1 in league play and tying for first with Redlands, while earning the tiebreaker due to the head-to-head win over the Bulldogs. It was the first league title in 31 years for the Stags, and the first one that carried with it an automatic bid.
"Just from day one this was our goal," said senior linebacker Mitchell Allan, who was named the SCIAC Defensive Player of the Year yesterday. "On our sheet of goals, it said 'let's go win a playoff game', something that no one really thought was possible here a couple years ago. I'm just so proud of these guys for everything they've done, and everything we've done from day one - from practice, to weight room, to meetings, and everything. It's just really cool to see it all come together and really prove that hard work does pay off."
"We have come a long ways," said eighth-year Head Coach Kyle Sweeney, who went through an 0-9 season in his second year, but has led the program to three seven-win seasons in the last four. "Our guys have worked really hard and I think think this is the culmination of our season in terms of all our accomplishments. But I'm just really excited to take this program into the playoffs for the first time ever."
Sweeney and his assistants earned the SCIAC Coaching Staff of the Year honor yesterday, while Allan (72 tackles) was named the Defensive Player of the Year and junior running back Garrett Cheadle (1,305 rushing yards) was named the Offensive Player of the Year. Allan insists that while his name was on the award, it was anything but an individual honor.
"That award means a lot to me, just because I know that's a team effort," he said. "I'm not the kind of person to go around holding that up by myself; I'm going to bring everybody that contributed with me. Everyone had to do their job in order for me to get this, so this is way less of a personal award for me and more of a team award, so I can go celebrate with those guys."
Heading to Whitworth (9-0, ranked No. 11 nationally) also means putting behind a defeat in the regular season finale, when the Stags already had their bid locked up, but fell 24-19 in the cross-street rivalry with Pomona-Pitzer. Sweeney was pleased the way his team moved past that defeat from the first day of practice.
"We were hungry this week," he said. "I think our guys recognize the opportunity that they have. Whitworth is a very good football team, and there's a reason that they won the Northwest Conference and are in the playoffs, but I think we are ready to go and ready to compete."
CMS (7-3) at Whitworth (9-0)
NCAA Division III Tournament Opening Round
Spokane, Washington (Whitworth Pine Bowl)
Saturday, Nov. 17, 12 p.m.