ALLIANCE, Ohio — For the last two quarters, Wesley College’s fate seemed like a foregone conclusion.
Spotting Mount Union a 31-point, first-quarter lead made the rest of the Wolverines’ NCAA Division III football quarterfinal game look academic.
But here it was, the fourth quarter, and Wesley was still hanging around.
Jared Morris can remember there were moments when he truly believed the Wolverines were going to win this thing.
“I’ll be honest with you, there was more than one,” said Morris. “There were about five or six. We saw our offense putting up points and the defense, we were getting some stops. ...”
“I’m like, ‘We’re going to do this,’” veteran offensive coordinator Chipp Knapp remembers thinking. “It’s just falling into place here in the fourth quarter.”
It didn’t happen, though.
Despite a comeback that left just about everyone shaking their heads, Wesley fell to the top-ranked Purple Raiders, 62-59, on a cold, record-setting afternoon.
A Wolverine program that was trying to reach the national semifinals for the sixth time in the last nine seasons wasn’t interested in moral victories. Wesley had just lost to Mount Union, 28-21, on the same field two years ago.
Still, an effort like that — both because of the size of the deficit and the tenacity in getting so close — went beyond the typical, too-little, too-late comeback.
“That’s the one thing we talked about after the game — how proud we were of how they stuck together,” Knapp said as he stood outside the team bus in the fading afternoon sunlight. “We just kept playing.
“That’s one thing when you play sports, you get those life lessons. That was a life lesson today — it shows what we’re capable of when we stick together, handle adversity and fight through things. Just keep plugging. Our guys did that.”
Among the array of records the Wolverines put up were the most points scored on Mount Union in its storied playoff history, quarterback Joe Callahan’s 633 passing yards and eight touchdowns and Steve Koudossou’s 11 catches for 273 yards.
Wesley outgained the Purple Raiders 635 yards to 447. When it became clear they couldn’t run the ball, the Wolverines switched gears, throwing it 52 times on their 70 offensive plays.
Coach Mike Drass and his staff, though, have always been good at in-game adjustments. There’s a reason Wesley outscored its opponents by 90 points in the second half of games this season.
“We knew it was going to be difficult to run the football on them,” said Drass. “We thought we could keep them honest. But aside from one really good run by Jamar Baynard, we really did not keep anyone honest.
“I credit Chip Knapp. He just looked at his script and narrowed it down to plays that were either going to be high-percentage completions underneath or attack them deep.”
Callahan threw an 81-yard touchdown pass to freshman Bryce Shade and a 78-yarder to Koudossou, who turned a short gainer into the long reception.
Long before Saturday’s game, there was a feeling that whatever Wesley did in the playoffs was just a bonus.
With two losses in their first seven games, a lot of people assumed the Wolverines wouldn’t even make the NCAAs.
After losing 12 starters to injuries in the course of the season, Wesley finished the year with just four seniors in the starting lineup.
But then the Wolverines made this run. Saturday’s loss ended a five-game winning streak.
Now, on paper, Wesley looks like it has the makings of a memorable team for next season.
Callahan, a sophomore first-year starter, came into his own; Koudossou put up some monster receiving games; the entire offensive line is back and the Wolverines discovered some young talent in Shade and Baynard, both only freshmen, along with running back Rick Jackson and tight end Kyle George, who are just sophomores.
On defense, junior linebacker Sosthene Kapepula is an All-American candidate, freshman cornerback Zane Campbell had a team-high seven interceptions while junior defensive end Aamir Petrose posted nine sacks.
If the Wolverines’ performance over the last three quarters against the No. 1 team in the country on Saturday wasn’t a mirage, then next season could really be something for Wesley.
“Today showed we could play with anybody in the country,” Callahan said after the game.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” said Drass. “We lost two starting defensive tackles, the fastest kid in the country at wide receiver, a starting running back, a starting offensive guard, an All-American corner. ... they were all done for the year and other guys stepped up and we were able to make this run. It’s amazing what some of the guys have done with the opportunities.
“You look at us and we lose three guys on defense and one guy on offense. We’ve got a lot of guys back.”
“We’ve got something to build on,” said Knapp. “We’ll look back on this game to help our program.”
One of the seniors who won’t be back next fall is Morris. But that doesn’t mean he can’t see the potential in next year’s team.
Morris said Saturday’s tough loss was just one more reason to think the Wolverines are getting closer to breaking through.
“A game like this. ... I look back at 2011 when we lost by seven points (to Mount Union),” Morris said as he sat in the Mount Union Stadium locker room.”Now, we lost by three points. I’m going to tell those guys, how’s it going to be next year when you’re at this point?”
Sports editor Andy Walter can be reached at 741-8227 or firstname.lastname@example.org.