Five days in a hotel on Daytona Beach, Florida, offer enough distractions to make any college football player lose focus.
Those from St. Francis maintained theirs. As a result, the Cougars brought home a second consecutive NAIA national championship trophy for the school’s display case.
With three local offensive linemen — starters Alex Woods and Austin Smogor (both from Center Grove) and backup right tackle Ryder Burchett (Greenwood) — the Cougars defeated Reinhardt University 24-13 in the Dec. 16 title game.
The win capped a 14-0 season in which St. Francis outscored the opposition 611-241. The Cougars will enter the 2018 season having triumphed in 38 of their past 40 outings.
Story continues below gallery
St. Francis has enjoyed quite a turnaround since a 6-5 campaign in 2014.
Smogor arrived on the Fort Wayne campus the following summer in time to hear a spirited message from longtime St. Francis head coach Kevin Donley.
“Coach D basically sat down with the team and wanted everybody to be all in,” remembered Smogor, a junior right guard. “After he gave that talk, everyone was on board with it. We didn’t just want to be another average program.
“We weren’t going to Daytona to have fun and to sight-see. It was like a business trip. There’s nothing better than going down there and spending the final week with the seniors on your team.”
Woods, the Cougars’ left tackle, was one of them.
The senior played his final college football game and now looks forward to seeing what he can accomplish in other aspects of his life. In May, Woods graduates from St. Francis with a degree in business management.
“It’s an honor to be a national champion, but to do it back-to-back is something pretty special,” Woods said. “This team knew it was going to have a target on its back, but we had this mentality, it was almost like a swagger, that we could do it.”
The question now is, can the Cougars make it three straight?
Texas A&I accomplished this from 1974-76; Carroll, a school in Helena, Montana, won four consecutive titles (2002-05) and then captured four of five national championships from 2007-11.
Carroll’s title game conquest in 2004 and 2005 was none other than St. Francis.
Despite the return of Smogor and Burchett, along with skill position talents like running back Justin Green and receiver Dan Ricksy, the Cougars will no doubt feel the pinch of the graduation of quarterback Nick Ferrer, who was tabbed NAIA Player of the Year.
Defensively, three of the top four tackers for St. Francis this season were juniors.
“We’re graduating a great quarterback, but we have solid offensive and defensive lines and a great running back coming back,” Woods said.
Not to mention a surplus of momentum.
St. Francis is now one of 15 NAIA football programs to win more than one national championship:
7; Texas A&I
3;Central Arkansas, Central State and Sioux Falls
2;Pittsburgh State, St. John’s, Abilene Christian, Elon, Central State, Northeastern State, Georgetown, Marian, St. Francis.