Dec. 5, 2009

Sidebar: In Crucial Fill-In Role, GVSU's Gates Shines


By John Raffel
Special to

ALLENDALE, Mich. — Making trips to the NCAA Division II national football championship game is becoming a virtual habit for Grand Valley State.

The No. 3-ranked Lakers will be making their sixth trip this decade to Florence, Ala. next week to play for the title after defeating No. 1 Carson-Newman (Jefferson City, Tenn.) 41-27 Saturday in a national semifinal game.

Grand Valley, led by P.T. Gates with 187 yards rushing, 70 yards receiving and 73 in returns, improved to 13-1 while the Eagles, winners of 11 straight, ended their season at 11-3.
The Lakers, who led the entire game, had a 408-278 advantage in total yards.

“We played hard but we didn't play very well at times,” said Eagles coach Ken Sparks. “Grand Valley physically mismatched us a lot up front. We weren't able to attack them at the line of scrimmage.”

“Carson-Newman is loaded with great athletes,” said Grand Valley coach Chuck Martin. “I don't know who I'm more proud of, our coaches or players. The last several months, they've given us everything we've got. Our kids have never blinked all year.”

Grand Valley has won four national titles, all this decade with the most recent coming in 2006. They lost in the 2001 title showdown. But Laker quarterback Brad Iciek and his teammates were frustrated in 2007 and 2008 in trying to return to Florence.

“This means a lot,” Iciek smiled. “We're happy to go back. We're trying to carry on a tradition here at Grand Valley.”

Gates exploded for 59 yards on Grand Valley's first play from scrimmage to set up a 26-yard field goal by Justin Trumble. Later in the quarter, Jacob McGuckin intercepted an Alex Good pass and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown and 10-0 lead.

“I knew the ball was coming,” McGuckin said. “I was happy the opportunity presented itself.”

“That was a huge moment and a big play in a tightly contested game,” Martin said.

But the Eagles struck back with an 89-yard touchdown return on the kickoff by Buck Wakefield. Gates, moments after a 31-yard pass play with Iciek, had a 3-yard scoring run late in the quarter for a 17-7 advantage. Iciek passed seven yards to Ryan Bass early in the second quarter for a 24-7 lead. On C-N's next drive, Good passed 58 yards to Reggie Hubbard to set up Wakefield's 1-yard TD plunge. Trumble's 30-yard field goal padded GVSU's halftime lead to 27-14.

Iciek threw 29 yards to Blake Smolen for a touchdown early in the third quarter for a commanding 34-14 lead. The Eagles came back with a 5-yard scoring plunge by Wakefield. They threatened to score again early in the fourth but a fumble recovery by Ricky Shorkey preserved Grand Valley's lead at 34-20.

Gates had a 27-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter to seal the victory for the Lakers. Wakefield scored his fourth touchdown on a 21-yard run with 2:37 to play.

Iciek completed eight passes for 118 yards. Justin Victor led the Laker defense with 10 tackles.

Carson-Newman entered the game with the No. 1 rushing offense in the country, averaging 349 yards per game. The Eagles were guilty of one fumble and two pass interceptions.

“We turned the ball over too much,” Sparks  said. “Give credit to Grand Valley. They played us tough.”

Wakefield had 119 yards rushing while Good had 101 passing for the Eagles.

Temperatures were in the 20s and players endured light snow flurries.

“We weren't concerned about the weather,” Wakefield said. “Grand Valley has a great defensive team and played their assignments.”

“It's not the type of field we practice or play on,” Sparks said. “(But) they still had 11 people on the field, the same as we did.”

Grand Valley was minus two starters and two backups, including career leading rusher Jimmy Berezik, all of whom were suspended earlier in the week by the school on an indefinite basis for violation of team rules. Berezik had 1,280 yards in 13 games this season. Gates, however, was a thorn in Carson-Newman's side.

“It didn't matter to us who was playing,” Sparks said. “They're both very good football players.”

The Eagles were making their first appearance in the semifinals since 1999. Grand Valley was in its seventh Division II  semifinal since 2001.

Attendance at Lubbers Stadium for the semifinal game was 7,247.