Mitchell and GV continue to persevere

Courtesy / Doug Witte

Courtesy / Doug Witte

Bryce Derouin

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With their heads down and tears coming out of their eyes, the Colorado State Pueblo-University football team walked off the field for the last time in 2013.

In the corner just beyond the south end zone, the mood was drastically different, as the Grand Valley State University football team began to break out in song to celebrate its 34-30 win over CSU-Pueblo.

“Grand Valley victory, as the Lakers we have pride,” they sang.

Whether it’s pride, toughness, or both, the 2013 Lakers have continued to overcome adversity and persevere.

Take Saturday, for example. GVSU’s offense opened the game with three high snaps that resulted in a loss of 30 yards and an interception, and the Lakers were down 16-0 to the No. 3 team in the country. The game had all the makings of a blowout, but the team rallied and found a way.

The adversity this team has faced can be traced back to the summer, when we all were reminded that sports take a backseat to what really matters.

Head coach Matt Mitchell and his team went out to search for the late Cullen Finnerty, a former Laker quarterback. Finnerty’s death sent shockwaves throughout the GVSU community, and for a football program that considers its members family, the loss meant so much more.

“We’ve been through a lot,” Mitchell said. “When you take things back to even this summer and some of the things that happened around the program, we’ve been through a lot, and with these guys, there’s never any doubt at any point. They keep battling. They keep fighting.”

And then there’s the injuries GVSU has had to overcome.

Unlike the NFL—or even Division I college football—where there are injury reports given out, it’s a lot harder to gauge the amount of injuries at other Division II programs, but I’d be willing to bet no team has had to deal with injuries as much as GVSU has in recent years.

Consider this: GVSU has not had its whole team together for one game this season.

Junior defensive tackle Isiah Dunning was hit by a vehicle that was driven by one of his teammates, and he missed the season opener against Azusa Pacific University. Junior defensive end Matt Judon—one of GVSU’s top players on defense entering the season—tore his ACL early in the first quarter against Azusa Pacific, and the secondary has had guys in and out of the lineup due to injury, with junior Bobby Wunderlich suffering a season-ending injury against Michigan Tech.

On offense, junior quarterback Heath Parling has missed five games, and GVSU lost its leading rusher, junior running back Michael Ratay, in the game against Hillsdale College.

While most teams would most likely falter down the stretch without their starting quarterbacks, leading rushers, and one of their top pass rushers, GVSU now finds itself with a chance to make it to the final four of the Division II playoffs.

That credit goes to Mitchell.

Entering this season, no person was under more pressure than him. Missing the playoffs this year with seven home games would have stirred up more #FireMitchell hashtags on Twitter, which were prevalent after each of the team’s two losses this season.

Mitchell’s coaching prowess was on full display in the second round of the Battle of the Valleys. After outscoring Saginaw Valley State University in the first matchup between the two schools, GVSU dominated 40-7 and completely shut down an SVSU offense that averaged 40.5 points per game in the regular season.

Was the wind and weather a factor in that game? Yes, but that didn’t stop GVSU.

Opposing coaches are always engaged in a figurative chess match, but it’s even more so when the two teams play each other on consecutive weeks, where the difference is about who can make the proper adjustments. Mitchell and his staff made those adjustments and outcoached SVSU.

On that day, and in the second half of the CSU-Pueblo game, Mitchell’s defense played to a championship caliber, similar to how his defenses played during GVSU’s national title runs when Mitchell was the defensive coordinator.

Those #FireMitchell hashtags seem pretty foolish now, hey?

Can Mitchell restore this program back to glory and enjoy the success GVSU had in the last decade? That remains to be seen, but after everything this team has been through, I wouldn’t count them out.

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