By Cassie Kickert
DE-FENSE! DE-FENSE! Pioneers fans raised that cheer many, many times late in the Elite Bowl, straining, yelling, hoping their team could find victory over the Fox Valley Force. It didn’t start pretty for the Pioneers. Nobody expected an easy win. Nobody anticipated what happened either.
|After giving up 14 points in the first quarter, the Pioneers defense was tough all night.|
The Force, on their opening drive, scored. Force quarterback T.J. Arndt threw the ball just high enough so that only his receiver, T.J. Hulbert, could catch it. One drive, and the Force led 7-0.
But the Pioneers offense would respond, with a punishing drive. After Lionel Lamarre gave the offense great field position at the 39, Riza Mahmoud and the offensive line did the rest. After jumping over the pile of Force defenders for a first down at the 17, Mahmoud took it the rest of the way for the score on the next play.
|Lamarre with a great return.|
A bad snap meant the Force still had the lead, 7-6.
The fact that both teams were battling was no surprise. Coming into the game Saturday, the Force were also undefeated in league play, losing only to the Racine Raiders in Racine, Wisconsin. They were about to show the Pioneers why. Quarterback T.J. Arndt came right back with another long touchdown pass, hitting Andy DeBruin, who then ran 77 yards for another Force touchdown.
DeBruin’s touchdown scamper made it 14-6 Force. Then, Fox Valley’s trademark defense showed they’re championship caliber too.
Time and again, the Pioneers tried to get Mahmoud going. But, save for the early touchdown run, he was met time and again by a slew of Force defenders at or near the line of scrimmage. McCoy, under pressure for most of the game, wasn’t able to do much either. Pressure can often lead to mistakes, such as an interception. On two consecutive second quarter drives, that’s exactly what happened.
“I came in and said we’re not going to lose but we just had to get going. I think that first drive was a confident drive but then we, and I, kinda got out of [our] shell a little bit and weren’t firing around and just being too laid back,” McCoy said.
|Mahmoud had two touchdowns.|
Good thing, then, that the Force defense wasn’t the only stellar defense on the field Saturday. Although
McCoy got intercepted twice, the St. Paul Pioneers defense had his back.
McCoy’s two interceptions did something else, too. They woke up the crowd, Pioneers and Force fans alike. Everybody began cheering on every play – with all they had.
As everyone watched, the stout Pioneers defense held the Force out of the end zone and, ultimately, to zero points after McCoy’s interceptions.
“We lean on each other when we need each other,” Lamarre said.
However, as one possession after another ended without a score, frustration began to mount.
Mahmoud gave credit to the Force defense for the Pioneers’ offensive struggles.
“You can’t take any credit away from the Force. They’re a solid team. They worked our [offensive] line. Folks were getting tired out there. We started strong. They beat on us for a little bit. We weren’t getting anything accomplished and it’s exhausting to a team. The thing [to do] for us was just to stay positive, keep our heads on straight and just fight through it,” he said.
Head Coach Mark Heiser agreed, saying the Force defense gave the Pioneers offense some issues but “we were able to adjust and make some big plays."
Halftime allowed the Pioneers an opportunity to regroup and make adjustments, which, according to Lamarre, the coaches did a great job of. It also gave everyone a chance to rehydrate. The Pioneers were going to need every fan’s voice if they were going to beat the formidable Fox Valley Force and be named Champions once again.
Safety Jake Lindsey said that halftime adjustments and believing in each other were the keys to staying in the game.
“We made an adjustment to what they were doing and we believed in each other and stuck together and nobody got down or on anybody. We just kept battling,” he said.
It took a while, though, in the second half, for the aforementioned adjustments to show up offensively.
So, as it has done all season, the defense picked up the slack. Defensive lineman Jeff McGaster and Brandon Murdock and the rest of the defensive line made it their personal mission to cause havoc for Force quarterback T.J. Arndt.
Heiser had great things to say about his defense’s performance, especially in the second half.
“In the second half we did a great job of getting pressure on the QB which led to a few interceptions. Our defense stepped up huge. Coach Powell put together a great game plan with some excellent half time adjustments. Defense wins championships and we have always been known for playing strong defense,” he said.
As time continued to go by in the third quarter, everybody began to wonder if the Pioneers were ever going to score and what it would take to make that happen.
|Lindsey's interception was the spark.|
The Force defense wasn’t letting up. The third quarter ended, with the Force still leading 14-6.
Then, it happened. The play all Pioneers fans, players, coaches and staff had been waiting all game for. This play lifted all Pioneers’ spirits and gave new meaning to the phrase “great field position.”
|Lolar had a big touchdown late.|
After the Pioneers defense pinned Arndt and the Force deep in their own territory – at their own 5 yard line – Lindsey intercepted the Fox Valley quarterback’s pass. The ball was placed at the Force 11 yard line. McCoy threw to receiver Damien Lolar, whose outstretched arms were waiting for the ball in the end zone.
But after St. Paul was unsuccessful on a two point conversion, the Force still led -- 14-12. More fans’ yelling – and more big plays – would be needed.
That’s when the Pioneers defense stepped up again. First-year player Ronald Zollicoffer intercepted Arndt again. However, McCoy also got intercepted shortly thereafter.
|Zollicoffer made an acrobatic interception.|
The Force would later look back and regret the next choice they made. They chose to go for it on fourth down and didn’t make it. After the turnover on downs, Mahmoud literally took over the game. On first down, he got three yards. On second and third, he gained five and 18, respectively.
Then, everybody watched as he ran down the far sideline, no defender able to catch him, to the end zone for a touchdown. He also ran in the two point conversion, giving the Pioneers their first lead of the game with about six and a half minutes to go.
The scoreboard read 20-14 Pioneers.
All Pioneers players, coaches, staff and fans knew as soon as Mahmoud ran into the end zone, the Pioneers wouldn’t relinquish that lead.
|Lindsey's second pick sealed the game.|
There was still work to be done, though. Jake Lindsey wasted no time getting back to work. He caught the Pioneers’ third interception of the day a few minutes later to more cheers.
It was then that the Pioneers began to celebrate.
After McCoy took a knee, the Pioneers were officially NEFL champs again—for the fifth consecutive season. This game wasn’t easy. It took contributions from everybody—including the crowd—for the team to win.
When asked what the key was to winning this season and this game, receiver Donte Pettis said:
“Us staying together as a family. Practicing, guys hanging out outside of football, just being together, trusting each other, communicating. Those are the things that build a dynasty.”
Truly, it was a team win. The Pioneers offense scored just enough to beat the Force. As usual, the defense did the rest.
Lamarre pointed out that the defense might have enabled the Pioneers to win games but it was the offense that had to come through in the end.
“Our defense did get us to the fourth quarter but it’s about finishing and our offense finished for us. We were down 14-6. Even if we kept up a shutout, we still would have lost if our offense didn’t come through for us and they definitely did,” he said.
Pioneers with multiple championships with the Pioneers – players like Lamarre, McCoy, Mahmoud and Pettis – were asked which one has meant the most. All of them said this one did because of how hard they had to work to achieve it.
“This year, it’s the sweetest, it’s the best. We just picked each other up. The first half, defense carried the offense. Second half, offense carried us. This was the most complete victory we’ve had and the closest game we’ve played in years. This one’s way sweeter than any of the ones we’ve had in the past,” Lamarre said.
McCoy said he was confident, even when things looked tough.
“I didn’t have a doubt that we were going to win this game. I came in and said we’re not going to lose but we just had to get going…. Halftime really helped. We came in and did some things and we made plays. Defense figured it out and we put up just enough to win the game. That’s what matters,” he said.
When comparing this championship to the 2009 Championship team, Pettis said this one means more because of the effort it took to win the game.
“We hadn’t faced adversity [this season] like being behind [until tonight]. [Tonight] we showed we have real character,” he said.
He is right about that. Although they were behind for most of the game, the Pioneers never quit, never faltered. They kept their heads up high and persevered and are now NEFL Champions for the fifth consecutive year. Congratulations Pioneers!
Players of the Game:
Defense -- Jake Lindsey
Offense -- Riza Mahmoud
Special Teams -- Rob Wills and John Ostertag.