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This Could Be the Moment

By Walter Villa, Special to STU

This could be the year.

This could be the sport.

This could be the moment that sparks a breakthrough.

The St. Thomas University Bobcats opened their football season at high noon on Saturday, suffocating the University of Fort Lauderdale 70-14.

In a game that was never close, the Bobcats led 49-0 at halftime.

The Bobcats, who compete in the NAIA, are still searching for their first team national title. STU’s baseball squad has come the closest, finishing second in the nation in 2015 and again in 2019.

STU’s football team, which has had two straight outstanding seasons – both ending with 9-2 records – could be the team to hoist that first national championship trophy. Certainly, the Bobcats played the role of the bully on Saturday, jumping on Fort Lauderdale quickly and never relenting.

Could this be the year?

Could it be football?

Could this be the moment that sparks a breakthrough?

“Our goal in every one of our athletic programs is to win a national championship,” said STU President David A. Armstrong, J.D., who made the decision to start a football program when he arrived on campus five years ago.

“But there are lot of steps you must do first. You have to win your conference. You have to have a good regular season. But the fact that this is our fifth season of football, this would be a good year for us to show our experience with a tough schedule and a tough conference. But that (a national title) is our goal.”

STU’s football program has been building since its inception in 2019, going 4-6 and then 4-3 in its first two years. In 2021 and 2022, the Bobcats narrowly missed the national tournament.

This year, however, the NAIA has expanded its playoffs from 16 to 20 teams, giving the Bobcats more hope that they will make the postseason in 2023.

“We have great expectations,” STU Head Coach Bill Rychel said, “and with that comes great responsibility.”

Rychel is the only coach the Bobcats have ever had, which has given the program continuity.

A former offensive lineman, Coach Rychel will lean on that unit this year withseveral fifth-year senior blockers that include guards Jayce Collins and Lucas Rodriguez, center Josh Young and tackle Jared Noble. Collins was the conference’s Offensive Lineman of the Year last season. Rodriguez is a team captain.

Those linemen open holes for running back Rontavious Farmer, who last year rushed for 1,553 yards, a 6.1 average and 14 touchdowns. On Saturday, Farmer dominated again, rushing for 141 yards, an 8.3 average, and four touchdowns.

The Bobcats are rotating two quarterbacks as Keely Watson and veteran Ty’Quan Wiggins are still competing, even as the season has begun.

“People get nervous about playing two quarterbacks,” Coach Rychel said. “But, to me, it’s like any other position if you have a close competition.”

The Bobcats also boast wide receivers David Hayes and Khalitri Zow, who each caught a TD pass on Saturday.

Defensively, the Bobcats are led on the line by captain Nicholas Engler, nose tackle Khalill Bryan, and FIU transfer Jeremy Moore.

The Bobcats’ 3-4 defense features outside linebackers Donnell Bennett III and Kendall Wilson II. The inside linebackers are Jordan Lynch, who started as a true freshman last year, and Gavin Paul.

Bennett, an all-conference player returning from injury, is the key to the unit.

The secondary features Jhaqwori Austin, who has switched from cornerback to safety.

All in all, it is a talented roster.

“Our goal,” Coach Rychel said, “is to win our conference and get into the national picture.”

Indeed, the Bobcats are already in the national picture, entering the season ranked 14th in NAIA.

But the Bobcats will be challenged by a tough schedule that stiffens immediately next week with a trip to play Stetson, an NCAA Division 1 FCS squad. After that, the Bobcats travel to Helena, Montana, to play Carroll College, the 15th-ranked NAIA team in the nation.

After a bye week, the Bobcats travel to Fort Worth to play Texas Wesleyan, ranked No. 21 in the NAIA.

The biggest game of the regular season, though, is set for October 7 in West Palm Beach, when the Bobcats will face host Keiser, ranked No. 2 in the nation in the NAIA. That game will likely decide the Sun Conference title.

“We have to get past Keiser,” President Armstrong said. “They were in the national championship game last year. That’s the only way to do it – you have to go through the best.

“We’re very excited about our prospects,” President Armstrong said of STU’s athletic program in general. “We have several programs on the verge of bringing home a national championship, and football is one of them.”

This could be the year.

This could be the sport.

This could be the moment.

Kris Williams

Author Kris Williams

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