Hatters’ formula for success relies on team chemistry, leadership
DELAND — Five years into their “modern” era, the Stetson football team has created a culture of camaraderie that is carrying the Hatters to new heights.
A 48-24 homecoming win last week over Morehead State pushed the Hatters to 7-1 overall and 5-1 in the Pioneer League. Since the private school brought back football in 2013 after a 57-year absence, Stetson had done no better than five wins.
“I’m just so proud of these guys and how hard we fight for each other,” said fifth-year senior quarterback and co-captain Colin McGovern. “The culture of this team has just come so far … and I only see it getting better every year.”
The 2018 season certainly has been one to remember.
The Hatters beat Jacksonville for the first time on a field goal as time expired.
They pulled out a lastsecond miracle win over Drake.
Their current four-game win streak is a program best.
They’ve set a number of team and individual records.
So what has made the difference?
“I think we have better players, and I think we have better coaches. That’s the start,” head coach Roger Hughes said. “The caveat to that is I think the leadership on our team has been outstanding, and it’s really, I think, a product of the last three years of hard work.”
That leadership component began to take shape when Hughes came across the book “Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win.”
Navy SEALs are known for their intense loyalty to one another and their high level of teamwork. Hughes felt the book would benefit his team, so he made it part of a leadership course he teaches.
“It’s the best management book I’ve ever had,” Hughes said.
Three years ago, Hughes changed how team captains were selected when he started an application process. Part of that process requires players to take the leadership course, then teach what they’ve learned to the rest of the team. In addition, incoming freshmen are required to read the book.
“I think right now, every person on this team has had exposure to that book, and has exposure to what we want out of our culture,” Hughes said.
The results? Players keep their egos in check, put their teammates first and lean on each other. Teamwork. “If you can trust everyone around you, whether it’s defense trusting offense or just defensive players trusting defensive players, it helps tremendously,” said redshirt junior linebacker Colby Duncan, who leads the team in tackles.
Hughes and his staff also emphasize the importance of striving to improve and avoiding complacency. It boils down to focusing on one game at a time.
“We don’t think about the games in the past. If you’re 7-1, it’s easy to just to be satisfied, but none of us are,” said McGovern, who has thrown for 2,183 yards and 19 touchdowns this season.
The Hatters have a good shot to go 1-0 each of the next two weeks, facing Butler (3-6) on Saturday and Valparaiso (1-8) in the regular-season finale Nov. 17 at Spec Martin Stadium. Stetson likely won’t earn the automatic FCS playoff berth that comes with winning the Pioneer League. San Diego, unbeaten in league play and the only team to have beaten the Hatters this year, must lose its next two games to give Stetson a chance.
So while the playoffs don’t seem likely this season, the Hatters can still finish 9-1 and continue to build from there.
Starting offensive lineman Brad Alexander understands that. The sophomore, who was a three-year letter-winner at Bishop Moore, chose Stetson because of the potential he saw.
“It’s been so much fun,” said Alexander, who started 10 of 11 games last season. “One of the reasons I came here was to be on this team and be a part of building something here.
“And it’s been such a turnaround from last year. It’s been awesome.”
And exciting. Fourthquarter rallies delivered wins over Drake, Jacksonville and Davidson.
The comeback against Drake was like something out of a movie script.
Wide receiver Steven Burdette picked up what was essentially an intentional fumble by teammate Jack Bowen and took it 8 yards for the game-winning touchdown as time expired. Stetson 23, Drake 21. “The ball has bounced our way a couple of times [this season],” Hughes said.
It certainly did that day in Des Moines. After catching a pass from McGovern, Bowen was quickly swarmed by three Drake defenders. Thinking on his feet, Bowen simply dropped the ball, hoping a teammate might be there to scoop it up.
“Having seven wins is always going to make it fun, especially in the fashion we have done it. The ending against Drake was probably the craziest play I’ve been a part of,” said redshirt sophomore kicker Jonny Messina.
The Olympia High alum contributed to the Hatters’ late-game magic when his 22-yard field goal as time expired helped Stetson beat Jacksonville 38-35. He credits much of the Hatters’ success to the strong bonds between teammates.
“The chemistry this year is just so good, and I think that’s what’s made us work so well together and get those seven wins so far,” said Messina, who used to catch passes from current FSU quarterback Deondre Francois at Olympia. “I think it comes down to little details, as coach Hughes always says. We make sure we do all the little things right.”
It was a “little thing” last week against Morehead State that sparked Stetson.
After the Hatters took over at their 1-yard line following a turnover, running back Bryce Blackmon picked up three yards on first down.
Blackmon’s run gave the Hatters the room they needed to throw the ball on second down. McGovern hooked up with Burdette for a 96-yard throw-and-catch touchdown that tied the game and shifted the momentum back to Stetson.
“We could have never run that play had [Blackmon] stopped and not given the second effort,” Hughes said. “So I try to point out all those little things that have the cumulative effect of making us a winner at the end of the day.”
That’s seven wins, and counting.
Fifth-year quarterback Colin McGovern has thrown for 2,183 yards and 19 TDs this season.
Stetson offensive lineman and Bishop Moore alum Brad Alexander (66) looks to make a block against Drake.