It is safe to say that after a 56-year hiatus, football is back at Stetson University.
More than 2,000 students, parents, alumni and citizens of DeLand turned out on Saturday for a sun-soaked afternoon of Stetson football at the new Athletics Training Center. None left disappointed.
While the Green squad edged the White for a hard-fought 20-19 victory, it was the smiles on the faces in the stands and on the field that told the story.
“This surpassed all of my expectations,” Hatters coach Roger Hughes said. “The energy around campus and around the community has just been spectacular. Today we saw the epitome of all that energy coming together.
“I keep pinching myself because last year at this time we had two coaches, two phones and two holes in the ground, and that was all we had. Hopefully this gives everyone a taste of how much fun this thing can be.”
Many of the 2,210 fans in the stands for the game were members of some of the last Stetson football teams, from the 1950s. That group included a large faction from the Hatters’ 1951 Tangerine Bowl Championship team. Some were on the Stetson campus for the first time in decades.
“We asked all of our former players to come back today,” Hughes said. “There was one of those guys from the Tangerine Bowl team who had not been back to campus in 40 years and he was, quite frankly, a little sour at Stetson for whatever reason.
“When he got here, he didn’t think there would be anyone here that he knew. I had him come in and sit down where there were about 12 of his former teammates, with their wives, and he was immediately recognized. It took about 30 seconds for the hugs and the tears to start, and that is what this game is about.”
While Saturday’s Homecoming event was about bringing alums back to campus, it was also about showcasing the fledgling football program. Many in the crowd on Saturday were also on hand when the team had its first practice back in August. What they saw on Saturday was a vastly different looking team.
“I told the guys that they looked like redshirt sophomores today,” Hughes said. “Overall, I am pleased. It is hard, because you see them every day, and you don’t remember where you were two or three months ago. When you sit back and look at things now, we are much better than I expected, but not as good as I want.”
The Green team was able to battle back for the victory on the strength of a pair of big plays in the second half. After losing to the White team 39-36 two weeks ago, the players on the Green team were determined to even the score.
Down 12-7 at halftime, the Green team got a jolt of energy at the 7:06 mark of the third quarter when defensive back Donald Payne (Fayetteville, Ga.) stepped in front of a pass from Jonathan Jerozal (Canyon County, Calif.) and returned the interception 35 yards for a touchdown.
The pick six gave the Green team a 13-12 lead.
“I wanted to make a play on the ball and was able to step in front of the receiver,” Payne said. “I didn’t really think I would be able to score once I got the ball, but it was a big play for us and gave us some momentum.”
Jerozal showed no adverse affects from the mistake, guiding the White team on a five play, 75-yard, touchdown drive on the next possession to put his squad back on top. Jerozal got a boost from a trio of Plantation, Fla., natives on the drive, completing a pair of long passes – one for 22 yards to Ryan Selimos and another for 24 yards to Tanner Muller. Former St. Thomas Aquinas teammate Joey Rizzo also got in on the fun with a 26 yard run.
All of that set up a Jerozal to Selimos touchdown pass from nine yards away to put the White team up 19-13 with 4:26 left in the third quarter.
“We had some good looks offensively,” Selimos, who had a game-high 12 receptions for 130 yards, said. “I was able to find some spots and the quarterbacks did a great job. We got some great protection from the offensive line. It was a real team effort. Our timing has been really good and we have really worked on that. All of the work we have put in is paying off. Jerozal and I have really worked well together over the last two scrimmages.”
The White team kept the lead until the later stages of the fourth quarter. The Green got another big defensive play, this time an interception by linebacker Joseph Morris (El Dorado, Ark.) of an Ian Leggett (Davie, Fla.) pass that turned the tide.
Taking over with 8:17 left to play, Ryan Tentler (Chicago, Ill.) led the Green on a six play drive, covering 41 yards for the winning touchdown. The big play was Tentler’s 31-yard TD pass to Kegan Moore (Marietta, Ga.).
“The whole game we were tying to read the defense to see what they were doing,” Tentler said. “We had been trying to catch that corner blitzing by having Kegan on a corner route because he is so fast. We knew that if we could get him in man-to-man we’d have them beat.”
The White team had two more possessions in the game to try to get the lead back, but both fell short. The first possession ended in a punt and the second ended when Justin Slaven’s (Deltona, Fla.) pass to Selimos came up two yards short on a fourth down play with less than a minute left to go.
Green linebacker Julius Holder (Austell, Ga.), who led all players with 10 tackles, said it was an exciting moment to be on the field when his team realized they had the win.
“We were ecstatic when we made that stop on fourth down,” Holder said. “I was extremely excited, it was awesome. I had a lot of adrenaline pumping out there, but there were a lot of people making plays.”
In addition to his 10 tackles, Holder was also credited with 1 ½ tackles for loss, a sack, forced a fumble and broke up two passes. Ryan Powers (Jupiter, Fla.) and Payne also had big games on defense for the Green, piling up eight tackles each.
“I had a great time just flying around out there trying to make plays,” Holder said. “Seeing all of my teammates come together like they did, this was almost like a real game with all of the excitement that went along with it. That was especially true because of all the fans that were here.
“It truly was a Division I game. The crowd was awesome. To look up and see all of the people lining the stands and all of the people outside watching. It was incredible.”
From a coaches perspective, there is still plenty of work to be done for the Hatters.
“We still had some sloppiness and weren’t quite as crisp in the passing game as I would have liked,” Hughes said. “Defensively, we did a lot more blitzing, a lot more corner blitzing, and that is certainly disrupting for the passing game. We didn’t have a lot of what I call non-thinking penalties, and that was good.”
Overall, the White team out-gained the Green 375 yards to 334, and first downs were tied at 19. The White team had better success through the air (241-71) while the Green had the advantage in the ground game (263-134).
Individually on offense, Tentler was the offensive star for the Green team, rushing for 133 yards, including a 72-yard TD run in the first quarter, while throwing for 66 yards and a score. Jerami Singleton (Clermont, Fla.) also had a productive day on the ground, rushing for 71 yards on 16 carries.
For the White team, Nick LaSala (Boca Raton, Fla.) was the leading rusher with 69 yards on just four carries. He also threw for 32 yards. Jerozal was the leading passer, throwing for 109 yards on 10-of-19 passes.
The White team defense was led by Dylan Wydronkowski (Glenville, NY) with seven tackles, including two for loss. He was also credited with a forced fumble and a pass breakup. Pat Mate (Cooper City, Fla.), Davion Belk (Chicago, Ill.) and Tyler Dixon (Clermont, Fla.) had six tackles each.
“Scrimmages are weird because you would be really mad if the offense did well because the defense did poorly,” Hughes said. “I thought there were spurts where we did some really good things and there were some times where we really showed our lack of experience.
“Now, for the next two weeks, we will go back to the full offense and the full defense and we will put in some new things that will carry on into spring practice and, hopefully, on into next fall.”
And that is the time when the games will begin to count again, for the first time since 1956.