On August 29, 2018, the dream of bringing football back to St. Thomas University was set in motion. President David A. Armstrong, J.D., in front of the student body, Miami Dolphins legends, Mid-South Conference commissioner, Eric Ward, and the Mayor of Miami Gardens, Oliver Gilbert, announced that Bobcat Football will kick-off in 2019.
Following the announcement of the inaugural season, St. Thomas Football needed a leader to build the program and “Set the Standard” of excellence that Bobcat Football strives to become. President Armstrong selected William “Bill” Rychel, to found their second program together (Notre Dame College), with Rychel being hired on October 15, 2018.
“I targeted Coach Rychel to start the program at St. Thomas University because he was one of the key drivers who helped me start a football program at Notre Dame College in Cleveland,” said STU President Armstrong. “Rychel and I have a history of building a college football team that focuses on mission, character building, academic success, and competition. He is a man of quality character and is a fantastic recruiter.”
The Rychel-era began on December 1, 2018, with Nate Scola (Strength & Conditioning | Special Teams) and Tony Neymeiyer (OL Coach) joining from Savannah State University (GA.). The trio traveled all across Florida, focusing on the tri-county area (Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach) to build “Bobcat1” and bring quality student-athletes to St. Thomas University.
Their combined efforts and tireless work were rewarded on National Signing Day (February 6), as the initial class for “Bobcat1” featured over 190 student-athletes, all of which were freshmen.
Football season began on August 4, with the team reporting to campus before the opening of training camp on August 6. The football team and coaching staff opened their first practice at 8 a.m., accompanied by Channel Seven news-anchor, Mike DiPasquale, to build the excitement for the upcoming season.
Joining Rychel, Scola and Neymeiyer on the inaugural coaching staff was, Alex Gray (Defensive Coordinator), Malik Grove (Quarterback Coach), Jerome Smith (Defensive Line Coach), Erick Burzanko (Tight End Coach), Tyson Jackson (DL), Steven Emerson (Defensive Back Coach), Terry Swanson (Running Back Coach), Regis Scafe (Safeties Coach), Christian Arrasita (Equipment Manager), Greg Cielec and Ian Ryan.
A month of practice and a full year, following the initial announcement, Bobcat Football was set to begin on September 7 against Thomas More University at Monsignor Pace High School. “It’s been a whirlwind process and I can’t believe game day is finally here. It feels like just yesterday it was December 1, with myself, Nate and Tony starting this mission,” said Rychel. “I’m proud of the work we have put in as a coaching staff, preparing the players for their first collegiate game. I am also grateful for the effort put in by our President, administration and school in embracing this journey and excited to finally get on the field.”
A year of built-up excitement culminated with a crowd of over 2,000-people prepared to witness the beginning of a new era of STU sports, as the Bobcats received the opening kick-off. Despite the loss to the TMU Saints, the game was historic, in its own right. Running back, Robert Armes recorded the first-ever touchdown in program history, scoring on a 12-yard run and Jordan Sepulveda connected with D’Amaunte Oliver on a five-yard receiving touchdown.
The following week, history once again was made. St. Thomas traveled to Barbourville, KY. for the first-ever road game in program history against the Union College Bulldogs. STU earned the first win in program history, never trailing in the game. St. Thomas scored the opening touchdown of the game, as Sepulveda found John Israel-Cooper for a 14-yard score. Later in the first quarter, STU added a second score, extending the lead to 14-0, as Cedric Tucker scampered in from seven yards away. The Bobcats pulled away in the second half, scoring 31-points, including a second touchdown from Israel-Cooper, this time from 87-yards. The defensive unit for St. Thomas sealed a win, following the fourth interception of the game, as the Bobcats notched the first win in STU Football history.
Armes earned Mid-South Offensive Player of the Week honors, setting the single game-high for St. Thomas University for yards (195).
The Bobcats opened Mid-South Conference play with two consecutive losses, falling to Webber International and No. 12 Southeastern. Once again, St. Thomas traveled out of state, seeking to end a three-game skid against Allen University (S.C.) on October 19. STU completed their first comeback win against the Yellow Jackets, trailing 14-7 after the first quarter, before holding Allen to nine points over the final three quarters. The Bobcats special teams recorded 12-points, blocking two kicks and adding a field goal. Fifth-year transfer, Keshun Horton sealed the win, recovering a fumble in the endzone, as STU won 36-23.
St. Thomas finally earned the first Mid-South Conference win in program history, defeating Warner University on the road, 38-31. The victory in large part was due to the efforts of Israel – Cooper. Israel-Cooper had the most impressive receiving day of the season for STU, totaling 13-catches for 161-yards and three touchdowns. In the final moments of the fourth quarter, Israel-Cooper tied the game on a three-yard score to send the game into overtime. The receivers’ third touchdown of the game came in overtime, as the Bobcats went ahead 38-31 before the defense forced a stop to win the conference match-up.
Israel – Cooper became the second Bobcats Football player to garner Mid-South Offensive Player of the Week attention, following the dynamic performance.
In the regular season and home finale on November 16, St. Thomas defeated Faulkner to earn the first home win in program history.
After starting the season 1-4, St. Thomas, sparked by the win against Allen, finished the second half of the season 3-2, going 4-6 on the campaign. STU scored 21-unanswered points in the second quarter, not forfeiting the lead and winning 24-14.
The Mid-South Conference later announced their First and Second-Team members, after the conclusion of the regular season. Five Bobcats earned recognition on the All-Mid-South Teams; Jayson Contreras (94 tackles), Michael Torrence (9 sacks) and Donnell Bennett III (74 tackles) all earned First-Team honors. Kahlil Bryan (33 tackles) and Mid-South Offensive Freshman of the Year, Israel – Cooper (48 catches, 642 yards, six touchdowns) both earned Second-Team nominations.
The historic season provided an incredible foundation of success, setting the standard of the program that Head Coach Bill Rychel and the coaching staff seeks to build to turn Bobcat Football into perennial winners in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.