To the hooting and applause of several hundred fans, the national football champions of Southern Oregon University paraded through Ashland Sunday — with one lineman, Max Proudfit, crowing that the Friday victory in Daytona Beach was “surreal. I still can’t believe it.”
The team and coaches trooped in pickups in a light drizzle from Lithia Park to Safeway as high-spirited townsfolk shot video of them — and they returned the favor.
The event followed the 55-31 win at the NAIA championship game, in which the league’s player of the year, SOU quarterback Austin Dodge, threw for a whopping 429 yards and three touchdowns.
The win was SOU’s first-ever national title and players waved a gold-football trophy to prove it. After the parade, players and coaches took in NFL games at Red Zone and posed by the three-foot high trophy, perched on the bar.
"It was incredible. That’s the only word I can come up with to describe the game and the season,” offensive coordinator Ken Fasnacht said. “It’s the memories of a lifetime for these kids.”
Proudfit said the team “all tried to focus on our job” even though they went up big early. By the final quarter, the Raiders were so far ahead that quarterback Dodge “was yelling at us that we are the national champions. That’s the moment your stomach sinks and you feel the full weight of everything that happened. And the parade — just awesome.”
After cheering the victors, retired SOU President Elizabeth Zinser said, “It’s fabulous for the students and Coach (Craig) Howard and the players. He got some really outstanding players and inspired them with his talent and will, helping develop them through character and service on campus and in the community.”
Riley Beagle, daughter of SOU Alumni Director Mike Beagle, grew up going to games with her dad and called the big win — which she saw in person — “amazing, surreal, unexplainably real. I lost my voice screaming. I remember dad and Coach Howard talking championship and I knew he could do it. In 2015, we’re going to keep the momentum going.”
SOU alum Mark Gibson, father of tackle Drew Gibson, was at the game, with wife Cori and son Ethan, a guard with North Medford High School.
“I did think it would happen, as the season progressed. It was evident they’d make the playoff,” said Gibson. “The number one thing is Coach Howard. He brought it all together.”
Cori Gibson said, “I felt very hopeful. All the family had faith in the team. It seemed they were catching up in the third quarter but by the fourth, they had it. They really deserved it and the coach is an incredible leader.”
Laure Trickel, a ’75 alum, tailgated all the games. “Coach Howard so motivated them and built the momentum," she said. "They got better and better. I knew it was a win in the middle of the third quarter.”
Team supporter Mike Bianca, said the championship “snuck up on us and will be really good for SOU.”
Coaches worked on preparing players to be relaxed and have fun while focusing on their game plan, said kick returner J. J. Latu, so they didn’t get distracted by nervousness.
“We were loose, having a good time. They (Marian University of Indiana) were taking it very seriously,” said Latu. “That’s how we won the game.”
The other kick returner, Sean McShane, said, “You can’t say I wasn’t nervous though it was fun and exhilarating to be on national TV. After the game, the coach extended the curfew to 1 in the morning. We went out and enjoyed ourselves.”
A national championship is admittedly a hard act to follow, especially with the loss of senior Dodge, but McShane and others said the team could do it and would be back at the job in spring, using Howard’s “next man up” philosophy, and elevating upcoming quarterbacks Jack Singler and Kamerun Smith.
“We’ve got a lot of depth coming back,” said McShane.