Saint Xavier’s run at its first national title since 2011 ended in Sioux City, Iowa on Saturday, as the No. 8 Cougars fell to the No. 3 Morningside Mustangs 52-7 in the quarterfinals of the NAIA Championship Series. Saint Xavier ends its 2017 season as Mid States Football Association (MSFA) Midwest conference champions with an overall record of 10-2.
The lopsided score of the final game in 2017 stands as an anomaly for a team that improved its win total by five games from a season ago. In the process, the Cougars completed the campaign 16 spots better in the national rankings than which they started.
Just one year removed from Mike Feminis’ first losing season since 1999, the head coach in his nineteenth year only fell twice in 2017. Both losses came against the No. 1 and No. 3 ranked opponents in the country.
The Cougars boast wins over No. 5 Marian University and No. 11 Grand View University and emerged victorious in four contests that were decided by one score. Among them included a 30-29 double overtime win over Olivet Nazarene University to earn a MSFA Midwest conference championship.
“The immediate word to comes to me is resilient,” Feminis said regarding his team. “They are a resilient group. We have really had to grind to get victories this year. They have a mindset that they’re going to find a way to win.
“No matter how poorly we’ve been playing through the first three quarters, if things aren’t going our way, they really believe we’ll somehow win a football game. I think that says a lot about this group. It’s been a blast coaching them and it’s a group that I’ll never forget.”
At the start of the season, Feminis needed to make a decision between his two competing quarterbacks. The choices included Justin Hunniford or Alex Martinez.
Hunniford, a junior, transferred out of North Central College with a plan to start on a team that offered him a scholarship after his senior season at Providence Catholic High School in 2014. Martinez, meanwhile, was returning after going 3-3 as a freshman and had proved to his coaching staff that he could run the spread offense to its fullest extent.
After the two quarterbacks alternated starts through the first four games, it was determined that Hunniford would be the team’s starter going forward beginning on October 14 verses Trinity International University. Unfortunately, Hunniford suffered a knee injury that would ultimately end his 2017 season.
Martinez would go on to start his team’s remaining six games and finished the year with 2,103 yards passing, 22 total touchdowns and six interceptions. Hunniford, in six games played, had nine total touchdowns, one interception on 917 yards passing.
Uncertainty will likely hover over the quarterback situation going into 2018, as Martinez and Hunniford are expected to return. A certainty, though, relates to the talent and depth in the weapons each signal caller will have at their disposal.
A major stride was taken at the wide receiver position in 2017. Sophomores Nick Czeszewski, Harold Davis, Chris Simmons, Michael Markasovic, and Joshua Wagner will all be returning, while freshmen Elliott Pipkin and Dylan Leschewski will each have an opportunity to make an impact in their second full seasons.
In order to allow the receivers to run their routes, the offensive line must create time for the quarterback. Three interior linemen are returning in Anthony Saro, Bruce Mesa, and John Ivlow.
Overall, Saint Xavier was ranked in the top-20 in the country in passing offense.
On the flip side, the Cougars ranked 12th in the NAIA in total defense allowing 324 yards per game. Saint Xavier also earned top-20 rankings in sacks-per-game and passing defense, holding opposing offenses to 191.8 yards-per-game through the air.
It all started up front for the Saint Xavier defense, as they were synonymous with creating pressure. The Cougars saw changes in its front seven all season long, but the depth pieces did not skip a beat.
They were, “resilient,” as Feminis would say.
Injuries to linebackers Josh Hettiger and Omar Salazar forced players like Joe Cosenza, Khristian Lett and Tahj Oliver to step in when their numbers were called. Same went for the defensive line, as the group rotated eight-to-10 players throughout the course of a ball game.
The result was one of the toughest defenses in the NAIA.
The unfortunate side of every collegiate athletic cycle is the inevitable ineligibility of four year players. The Cougars will need to fill the void left by numerous amounts of playmakers who will be graduating in 2017-18.
Staying on the defensive side first, seniors Robbie Brindley and Glen Smith III leave a secondary with a bright future. The two helped nurture a defensive backfield that produced the MSFA Midwest defensive player of the year in sophomore Tionte McDaniel.
The group that will take the biggest hit will be the defensive line. Five of 13 linemen, including Jesse Gonzales, Derrick Hosselton, Rudy Antuna, Josh Wallick and Jeff Cesario contributed to Saint Xavier’s sixth overall ranking in total sacks.
On offense, wide receivers Drey Devereaux, Mark Strbjak, and Maurice Sutton will hang up their cleats for good. The same goes for running backs Mike Ivlow and Esau Hemphill.
Offensive lineman Justin Hunter leaves Saint Xavier as an All-American. Finally, punter Joe Bailey and kicker Abdul Mahdi exit as two of the best to ever play at the position in program history.
“We certainly have some interesting personalities among this class,” Feminis said of his seniors. “Guys like Jessie Gonzalez and Rudy Antuna are two guys that I’ll certainly never forget. I could probably go down the line, but they’re just a really good group of kids.”
Despite all the seniors that will not be a part of the 2018 season, Saint Xavier looks forward to its incoming recruiting class and its efforts to improve on 2017’s 10-2 record. Collectively, this group should hold their heads high and be proud of the season they were able to put together.
Saint Xavier left it all on the field, and they will pick it back up in the Spring.