by Rosie Sinapi
photography by Jeff Leard
There will never be another football season like this year’s. The fighting Leos may take it all the way to the playoffs again, but missing from the cast will be the players that Rex Huigens molded in his first year as head coach.
Also missing will be Huigens at the wheel. He is moving on and, as Roland Ortmayer did in the past to him, the mentor is letting his pupil lead the team.
Although the team ended it sooner than they would have liked, from start to their final game, a 51-12 loss to St. John’s University, it was memorable.
Ask any one on the team about the flight. Flying into cloudy Minneapolis Airport in Minnesota, it took the ULV football team three attempts to land. But their luck was bound to run out soon.
On Saturday morning, the team was still experiencing good luck when a snow storm passed due south of Collegeville, Minn., making for decent game conditions. Then it happened, the hot team from California’s luck stopped when the St. John’s University Johnnies gave the Leopards a quick freeze in their first playoff game ever.
Although Huigens and junior quarterback Ryan Campuzano joked afterwards about the flight in and the weather, both admitted that not only was La Verne not mentally together, but that St. John’s was a team that knew how to take advantage of La Verne’s trouble spots.
“I don’t know if we were there mentally,” said Campuzano. “Something just was missing.”
“We got beat by a better football team,” said Huigens assuredly.
Whether St. John’s is a better football team is debatable, but they did play a better game than the Leos.
Campuzano, who finished the season with 1,624 yards on 108 completions, had an average game with 166 yards on 16 completions. Unfortunately, against the powerful Johnnies, his receivers, backs and linemen were heavily covered.
“They (the Johnnies’ defense) seemed to be at the right place at the right time,” said Campuzano.
Then there was Kurt Ramler, the third quarterback of the season for St. John’s who, with the help of strong receivers and linemen, had 24 completions for 445 passing yards. And if that is not amazing enough, he sat out the fourth quarter.
“The middle defense would be wide open,” said Ramler. “I thought they’d change their defense, but they didn’t switch.”
Their top rusher, Matt Malmberg, had 124 yards compared to Leopard Bill Zernickow’s 56. Their top two receivers, Chris Palmer, 206 yards and Mike Faber, 106 yards, scored more points individually than ULV’s top two, senior Bill Battin with 72 yards and sophomore Anthony Rice with 31.
Points and yards did not mean that it was a easy win for St. John’s. On the contrary, the Leos provided a valiant fight for most of the game.
“The score wasn’t indicative of the game,” said Ramler. “We were able to demoralize them so they weren’t playing to their level.”
And demoralize they did on the first series of the game. Kicker Juan Contreras kicked the ball well into the end zone. The defensive line kept the Johnnies down, but on the eighth play of the game, Ramler connected with tight end Andy Auger for a 22-yard touchdown pass.
After receiving a blow to an already weak knee during the drive, senior Darren MacLellan, who finished the season with 1,379 yards on 220 rushes and 16 touchdowns, was pulled from the game. With MacLellan out, Rice was given the primary duties, but the only action he received was on the Leos’ first touchdown of the game, late in the first quarter. By leaping into the end zone and hitting the cones, he was able to give the Leos their first points.
“We just played our defense on Rice. I said, ‘We got to pay attention to him,’” said Johnnie Head Coach John Gagliardi.
Also providing worries for the Johnnies was Battin. He received several bombs from Campuzano during the first half, providing some much needed yardage on the Leos’ side of the board.
“I thought I’d never see a score like that on our side of the scoreboard,” said Battin.
Even when it seemed like the Leos were in hot water, down 24-6, Campuzano was able to top off a 79-yard drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Rob Graves.
With a minute left in the half, Ramler had a touchdown pass of his own to Palmer, giving the Johnnies 31-12 lead.
Doing a better job controlling the game in the second half, the defense kept the Johnnies down to three touchdowns. Senior defensive back Bob Gleason had 13 tackles, leading the defense. One of the reasons why the defense was not up to their strength was a rather lackluster performance by Leopard strongmen seniors Tyrone Youngblood and Kelly Mattson.
During the second half, the offense had trouble getting into scoring range. When the fog settled, the Johnnies came out on top 51-12, but as Huigens went on to tell his team, it just topped off a memorable season.
“This was a great experience. I still feel as proud of the guys as I did before, nor should it take away from what we’ve accomplished,” said Huigens. “We’ll put on our helmets again.”