Senior Class Set the Foundation for Special Season
Northern Arizona hosts Cal Poly Saturday at 4:05 p.m. in the Walkup Skydome. The game will be broadcast on Fox College Sports Pacific (DirecTV 626) and NAU-TV (Suddenlink 4/104 and online) live to a national audience. Fans can also listen to the game on the Big Talker on 105.1 FM The Big Talker in Flagstaff, Prescott and Sedona and online on The Big Talker website and via their mobile app on your phone. Tickets are available by calling the Central Ticket Office at 928-523-5661 or by purchasing them online. The Walkup Skydome Ticket Office opens at Noon on Saturday.
FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - The Northern Arizona football program will celebrate the careers of 15 seniors prior to kickoff of Saturday's game against Cal Poly. They have come to the program from all corners of the country, recruited from as far east as Miami, Fla., to Seattle in the Northwest and the beaches to the west in San Diego.
There are seven fifth-year seniors in the class and three junior college transfers. One already graduated and joined the program to finish his eligibility with his younger brother. Two are from Northern Arizona high schools. While each has a different background and contribution, they all will finish the 2012 season forever linked as Lumberjacks.
"It is going to be an emotional game with all my friends I have been here with for four years," said Taylor Malenfant, who played at Scottsdale's Notre Dame Prep. "I have built relationships with them that I will have the rest of my life."
The relationships start during the preparation. Whether it is summer conditioning or a fall camp, the success of each team starts there.
"This offseason we focused on getting the bad taste out from last year," said Malenfant. "Coach Hodgeson got us going and the coaches locked down on us and held us accountable."
Head Coach Jerome Souers credits his 2012 senior class for the triumphs this season.
"When Strength and Conditioning Coach Cody Hodgeson took over the weight room, these guys were sophomores and still figuring the game out and learning how to prepare," said Souers. "To see them get to this level in their senior year speaks to their belief and commitment and dedication to excellence. I am very proud of this group because they have done many things the teams before them have not."
The list of accomplishments for the senior class is long and still growing in 2012. They beat a Football Bowl Subdivision team for the first time since 1987 by defeating UNLV and snapped a 14-game losing streak to Montana. They also posted an eight-game winning streak, the longest for the program since 1958, that has set the stage for a potential league championship and FCS playoff appearance.
"The one accomplishment for this senior class that really defines them is the fact that they laid the foundation," said Souers. "They set the standard for the work ethic. They laid the foundation in team chemistry with regards to the type of people we recruited. They were an active part in all aspects of the program from the ground up."
The class has combined to start 161 games in their careers led by 32 straight starts by offensive lineman Trey Gilleo, who hails from Kingman just two hours west down the I-40. He has started every game over the last three years, serving as the leader on a line that has paved the way for the offense during that span.
"I think Trey represents the best of what this program is about," said Souers. "He is a relentless worker and his preparation model is what we set as the standard. If you want to see how it is done right, watch Trey do it. He is a leader by example because he does everything right. I think his ability to make those around him better makes him that much more of a strong leader."
"When you look around the huddle and you see four of your best friends right there with you, it helps calm the nerves and gives you confidence going into the game," said Wilson.
The other seniors on offense have had different paths to this day. Quarterback Cary Grossart waited his turn to start and has been a key factor in the success of the team the last two seasons. Fullback Jake Hess, who is a candidate for Academic All-America honors, joined the program from Boise State, while Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson played his first four years at Cal. After graduating last May, he came to NAU to finish his career with his younger brother Ca'leve, playing together one last time. He has rushed for over 400 yards and four touchdowns this season.
Wide receiver Austin Shanks, who is in his fifth season, has had a memorable senior year. He has returned two punts for touchdowns and leads the nation in punt return average.
Eight of the seniors come from the defensive side of the ball, providing another story line. Linemen Jarret Bilbrey and Devin Willis both have started every game. But one of the traits of the defense this year has been its depth including six from the elder class. Most have started in their careers but have played other roles this season.
"There is a more important bigger picture they showcase," said Souers. "In the greater picture, playing the role that helps the team succeed brings success to everybody. It is a very unselfish approach and you have to give those guys credit for playing a role. Every senior expects to start but sometimes it does not work out that way."
The Taylor trio is the perfect example. Safeties Malenfant, Taylor Julio and Taylor Patten have made a combined 37 starts in their career but none this season. But they have each seen action all season on both defense and special teams, contributing every game. It is the unselfish approach that has aided the performance and success of the team.
"We have had a good defense in the past but this year is a different atmosphere as a whole," said Malenfant. "Everyone does the job they are assigned to do and they are doing it. We trust each other and are doing what we need to do to get a win. The defense is amazing and we are all brothers."
Linebackers Eric Storey, Nick Ragland-Johnsen and Brandon Phillips have also each made an impact. Ragland-Johnsen started seven games as a sophomore and returned after missing all of last season recovering from a shoulder injury. Phillips has overcome losing his hearing on one ear and had a huge game in the Montana victory.
While each had their own route leading them to Senior Day, they will collectively play in the season finale with one final goal – a conference championship. Everything they have done to prepare in their careers has setup this opportunity.
"The mentality for preparing for a game will be the same as it always has been," said Souers. "This year for the seniors, every week is an opportunity to play and succeed. Yes it is true there is a lot riding on this game. No more than there was last week. We need to come out behind our leaders and follow them to the best performance of the year. That is what we need from our football team right now."
The day will start with a celebration for the 15 seniors and will hopefully end in a championship for the team.