EAST LANSING, Mich. – Only five points kept the Michigan State club football team reaching the playoffs and getting a chance to compete for its ultimate goal: a national championship.
“When you only lose by five points, it knocks you back,” said head coach and defensive coordinator Chris Pickney. “If certain things didn’t happen, we would still be playing football right now.”
On Oct. 15, the Spartans fell to the Robert Morris Peoria Eagles 35-30 in their first of three conference games of the season and with it, their playoff chances.
Ultimately, the team finished second in the Great Lakes West conference with a 2-1 record with a 52-0 victory over Loyola Chicago and a 9-7 win against University of Wisconsin Milwaukee.
Although the goal seemed lofty, especially since the team was only in its second season, everyone believed it was possible. The team had the right mixture of dedication, talent, and coaching.
Players trained throughout the offseason, including a summer camp that held two-a-day practices. The team featured talented players on both sides of the ball. The offense was led by the dynamic duo of senior quarterback Vinny Costnazo and senior wide receiver Jacob Sterling while junior safety Lucas Mayo led one of the stoutest defenses in the league. The new head coach, Chris Pickney, lead Oakland University to an undefeated National Club Football Association (NCFA) championship season in 2014.
The result were feelings of disappointment and frustration as the team fell short of making the playoffs.
“I think our team has the ability to play with anyone in the NCFA,” said Costanzo. “We just didn’t execute at the times we really needed too.”
Robert Morris Peoria
Many players and coaches regret the loss to Robert Morris Peoria. Instead of playing in November, the team sits at home wondering what could have been.
The Spartans scored the first touchdown and looked to be in control on defense even though Mayo, who is also the captain, went down to an ankle injury early in the first quarter. Key linebackers Ryan Koshko and Patrick Loewen suffered injuries during the game as well.
The Spartans controlled the game until the Eagles got on the board with a 70-yard touchdown.
Something changed on the sidelines then. The upbeat and lively attitude soured and an air of nervousness surrounded the team.
Then it all collapsed.
The Spartans fumbled the next two kick offs for touchdowns and gave up a safety on the next. In the blink of an eye, the Eagles scored 23 straight points.
The team sat in silence behind the metal bleachers at the Hope Sports Complex. The players were attending the funeral of their season.
That was until Mayo gave his usual half time speech, but there was nothing usual this time. The season was on the line. Mayo’s passion came through in his calm voice and demeanor as he rallied his teammates.
“This is it men,” said Mayo. “Our hopes and dreams for the season are on the line. Win for the brother next to you.”
“Every time Lucas speaks everyone listens,” said wide receiver Danny Mogill, a senior. “Whether he’s dressed or not, everyone takes him very seriously and he helps motivate everyone.”
As he spoke, Mayo was able to re-light the fire in everyone around him.
The players walked back on the field with a swagger as if they were the ones leading by twenty-one points.
They played like it.
Within 10 minutes, the Spartans eliminated the daunting deficient and even took a seven-point lead. They answered the Eagles’ 23 points with 23 of their own.
The feelings of worry were replaced by those of overwhelming joy. The season was not over; they were in control.
“I think that’s the type of football we can play the entire year,” said Mayo. “We just couldn’t always put it together.”
Just like that, it all came tumbling back down. The Eagles went on a game winning touchdown drive that only left a few seconds left on the clock. The team fell silent, already wondering what could have been.
Robert Morris Peoria left East Lansing with the win, crushing the Spartans’ dream.
“It was disappointing that we didn’t finish when you fight back from the deficit we did,” said Pickney.
Finishing the season
The Spartans were forced to shift goals. The team might not make the playoffs, but it was not going to lose again. The Spartans responded by defeating Loyola 52-0 on senior night in what players felt was a statement game.
“We felt we had a point to prove after losing to Robert Morris,” said Mogill. “We didn’t like the taste of that loss and wanted to show people the type of football we can play.”
The team traveled six hours to Wisconsin to finish their season with a hard fought 9-7 victory. Everyone understood the playoffs were a shot in the dark, but it had become the biggest game of the season.
“It was time to take care of business and do what we can do,” said Pickney. “We tried to get a win and then see how things would shake out."
Family Bond and reflecting
The team’s major accomplishment came outside of the X’s and O’s. It became an extended family for the players and the coaches. The players wanted to win so they could share the glory with their 45 new brothers.
“We’re just one big family,” said Mogill. “I consider everyone on that team a brother and we didn’t want to let our brothers down.”
Mayo added that the bus ride home from Wisconsin was a highlight from the season, because he got to spend it with his team.
“Football is only a stage in your life and goes by in a blink of an eye” said Pickney. “It’s the things you do after football and the things you learn from it that influence the bigger picture.”
Players had mixed feelings on grading the success of the season. Mogill said that the season can be chalked up as a success because the team doubled the amount of games on the schedule and the program received more exposure to the public.
Mayo was not afraid to call the season a failure, but added that the team learned valuable lessons that will help them bounce back.
“Anytime we don’t win a championship, I would say it’s a failure to me personally,” said Mayo. “That doesn’t mean we can’t bounce back and try again. People fail a lot of times, so sometimes you just have try to and bounce back."