DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Apropos.
The Webster Dictionary meaning states simply “very appropriate to a particular situation.”
That couldn’t have been more outlined than a 16-yard touchdown pass that sent the top-ranked team in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics to the top of the national mountain Saturday, Dec. 15. The two individuals on the front and back end had done something similar for the Maroon … as a matter of fact 164 times for senior quarterback Trent Solsma (SR/Dakota Dunes, SD) (Dakota Dunes, S.D.) and 73 times for senior wide receiver Connor Niles (SR/Sioux City, IA) (Sioux City, Iowa). None could have been more weighty, historic or legendary than the one with 1:29 to play, though, that followed misfortune by the upset-minded foes in red and black as a bad snap on a punt enabled a Morningside drive to start in the red zone with the clock ticking down.
“I just remember catching it and then going to my knees,” Niles, who set a new national career yardage standard, said after Morningside claimed its first national championship and closed a 15-0 season with a heart-stopping 35-28 win over a tenacious Benedictine College of Kansas crew.
“After that, it was all cameras and teammates mobbing me,” he added. “This is absolutely amazing.”
“It was going to him no matter what,” Solsma admitted. “He’s made big plays his entire career. This was no different.”
A touchdown for the ages that settled what had been a back and forth affair from the get-go at Daytona Municipal Stadium. The Ravens opened fast with a touchdown on their opening drive, and head coach Steve Ryan’s team answered with back-to-back pay dirt strikes, the first from Solsma to Niles from 44 yards and the second on the legs of sophomore running back Arnijae “AP” Ponder (Omaha, Neb.) from five yards out. The visitors found a comeback of their own to end the half rattling off 13 straight points for a 20-14 halftime advantage.
Despite the first halftime deficit in some time for the program, there was no sense of panic at halftime, according to Niles.
“I’ve got to credit (senior linebacker) Chase (Reis of Grand Island, Neb.) and (junior linebacker Joel) Katzer (of Wellsville, Kan.) for helping keep things on an even keel (in the locker room),” he noted. “He and the defense just said score once and we won’t give it back.”
“We shot ourselves in the foot a little in the first half,” Solsma said. “We just kept it calm though … we’d been moving it up and down the field. We leaned on our phrase of ‘Just Believe.'”
As asked, the offense went to work quickly in the third period with Solsma hitting Niles on an electrifying 80-yard strike to begin the third frame and then the NAIA’s Player of the Year turned to sophomore wide receiver Reid Jurgensmeier (SO/Wahoo, NE) (Wahoo, Neb.) for a 19-yard touchdown pass and a 28-20 lead. The defense stood in strong the remainder of the second half, allowing a tying score on a short field but then turning away the Ravens three and out two times in a row to send the Morningside faithful and the team itself into euphoria at game’s end.
“We had to stay relaxed and have fun down the stretch,” Reis, the Defensive Player of the Game due to eight tackles, a sack and two and a half tackles for losses, pointed out. “This was our last go around … the last time to be able to play with our friends in a game we love. It couldn’t have ended much better.
“It was all about (our defense) getting an opportunity and making the most of it,” he added. “Our coaches have been working with day in and day out making sure we were ready for just such a thing.”
Joel Katzer (JR/Wellsville, KS) and junior defensive back Klayton Nordeen (JR/Alliance, NE) (Alliance, Neb.) stood tall for the defense numbers-wise. Katzer tallied 18 tackles, while Nordeen finished with 10 and an interception. The other half of the Katzer linebacking connection, Jacob, tallied nine tackles.
Offensively, Solsma and Niles wrapped up remarkable collegiate careers with 292 yards and four touchdowns passing for the quarterback and 164 yards and three touchdown receptions for the wide receiver. Niles, due to his game-winning catch and setting a new career receiving yardage record for the NAIA (6,239), was named the Offensive Player of the Game. The stars didn’t end there, though, as Ponder had another workman-like effort on the ground rushing for 134 yards and a touchdown to match Benedictine senior standout Marquis Stewart nearly step-for-step as Stewart scored once and gained 168 yards.
Special teams came through big, too, as senior punter Spencer Wyant (SR/Sergeant Bluff, IA) (Sergeant Bluff, Iowa) produced big kick after big kick to turn the field around to the tune of 45.5 yards per attempt with a long of 57. Senior placekicker Jared Amundson (SR/Sioux City, IA) (Sioux City, Iowa) wound up his collegiate campaign perfect as always on extra points, going five-for-five.
“I’ve been motivated to not let this season end,” Ryan said. “The toughest part for me was that, at the end of the night, the year would be over. I’m so proud of what they’ve accomplished. It ended the way we were hoping … I’m ecstatic.”