Warrior football season in review


Kendahl Schlueter

Senior quarterback Darren Beenken looks to pass the ball on Saturday, Sept. 16 against Minnesota State University Moorhead at Altra Federal Credit Union Stadium, where the Warriors won 42-14. Beenken was named to the NSIC All-Conference second team along with several other teammates. The Warriors finished off their regular season with a 10-1 record and hosted their first home playoff since 2007.

Mitchell Breuer, Sports Reporter

Sawyer named NSIC Coach of the Year for fifth time

For the fifth time in his 21 years of working at Winona State University, head football coach Tom Sawyer has been named NSIC Coach of the Year.

The award was given following one of the most successful years in recent history for the team. Sawyer led the team to a regular season record of 10-1 and their first home playoff since 2007. His career saw a continued pattern in recent years of constantly improving each fall since the team went 4-7 in 2014, the teams worst record since 1996. While the team has seen some lows, Sawyer continued to turn the team around from below .500 to a true playoff contender.

Although the year ended with a playoff loss at home to Texas A&M Commerce, Sawyer’s team still proved to be consistent from August to November. The season was highlighted with an eight-game winning streak and wins over ranked teams Bemidji State University and the University of Sioux Falls, and a homecoming win over Wayne State University.

Contributed by Winona State Athletics
Winona State head football coach Tom Sawyer speaks with an referee at the NCAA Playoffs against Texas A&M-Commerce on Saturday, Nov. 18 at Altra Federal Credit Union Stadium. The Warriors lost 6-20, wrapping up their season with an overall record of 10-2. Sawyer was named the NSIC Coach of the Year.

The season and award adds to the veteran coach’s already impressive stat line, as he now has 174 wins, six seasons with 10 or more wins and six playoff appearances to his name.

The nicknamed “Purple Reign” defense headed by senior defensive back Andrew Spencer, junior linebacker Nick Pridgeon and senior linebacker Luke Teague, the unit proved to be one of the best in the country which forced 36 turnovers along with 26 sacks throughout the year. They showed their strength constantly and provided the team opportunities to put points on the board. They sometimes took matters into their own hands, and on five different occasions brought back interceptions for touchdowns.

Offensively, the team saw several players improve throughout the year. Junior and sophomore running backs Eric Birth and Javian Roebuck were perfect examples of this, as they individually went from under 30-yard games to rushing for over 100 yards on multiple occasions. The duo ended the year with a total of 1,376 total rush yards and 14 rushing touchdowns. The year proved to be a career-best for Birth, who joined the team in 2014.

The running game wasn’t the only part of the offense that saw constant improvement, as redshirt first-year quarterback Owen Burke was able to make the most of the opportunities that were given to him. While he spent most of the season behind senior Darren Beenken, Burke did see improvement in his limited time on the field. At his first start he threw 10 for 24 on pass attempts with a touchdown and two interceptions, the rest of the season following that game he threw for 188 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions and completed 18 of his 36 attempts.

Special teams remained a very important part of the team with sophomore Jake Balliu setting a single season record for punt return yards (504) along with three return touchdowns.

Senior kicker Carter McCauley remained successful in gaining points for the team as he kicked 19 for 27 on field goal attempts and 47 for 48 on extra point attempts, and set the NSIC record for career field goals made with 55 surpassing the old record of 49. Junior punter Michael Russel also provided an assist to the defense as he recorded a career-high 14 punts inside the 20-yard line.

While Sawyer and his staff assembled quite the roster this season, and coached a team that performed well enough to win all but two of their games, it is what Sawyer does on and off the field that Birth will remember him most for and how he changed him for the better.

Junior defensive end Michael Ferrante celebrates with fellow team member David Smith after a play in Altra Federal Credit Union Stadium during the Homecoming game against Wayne State University on Saturday Oct. 21. Ferrante was named to the NSIC All-Conference second team along with Darren Beenken and other teammates.

“I honestly don’t know where to start. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t be the man I am today without him,” Birth said. “People outside of the program only see what he does for the game, but no one knows how much passion and effort he puts into making sure that we become the best men that we can be. I just recently lost my father a few weeks ago and Coach Sawyer has been there every step of the way with me making sure that I have everything I need and make sure that I know I’m not alone. I don’t see a better man more deserving to be Coach of the Year than Coach Sawyer. He not only changes the program but the community along with it.”

Along with Sawyer’s Coach of the Year award, several players received other accolades. Running back Roebuck, senior offensive lineman Jake Gronholz, return specialist Balliu, sophomore defensive lineman Michael Gomez, senior linebacker Mike Imperiale and defensive back Spencer, were named to the NSIC All-Conference first team.

Junior wide receiver Isaiah Frandsen, quarterback Beenken, junior offensive lineman Colin Valley, senior fullback Zach Olstad, kicker McCauley, junior linebacker Pridgeon, senior defensive back Adonis Brown, linebacker Teague, and junior defensive end Michael Ferrante were named to NSIC All-Conference second team or were honorably mentioned.

In addition to being named to NSIC All-Conference first team, Spencer was named NSIC Defensive Player of the Year. Spencer finished the year with 2.5 sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss, two forced fumbles, 76 total tackles, a career-high seven interceptions, and a career-high two touchdowns.

While the team will lose several key seniors following the school year, Sawyer will retain many important players from the 2017 season, keeping alive the hope to repeat their success next season. If the team can continue to improve as they have in past seasons, Winona State and Sawyer may just see an extended playoff run.

Nicole Girgen
Members of Winona State University’s football team work together to complete a play, tackling a Wayne State College player during the Homecoming game on Saturday, Oct. 21 at Altra Federal Credit Union Stadium. The Warriors finished off one of their most successful seasons in the team’s recent history with a regular season record of 10-1. The team lost in the first round of NCAA playoffs to Texas A&M-Commerce, and while the team will loose several seniors this year they will keep many important players with hopes of repeating their successes next season.