The ThunderWolves of Colorado State-Pueblo will play for the school’s first national championship Saturday in Kansas City, Kansas.
CSU-Pueblo will take on Minnesota State-Mankato, another school looking to lock up the first Division II football championship in school history.
The difference between these two teams is that MSU-Mankato made it through the regular season unbeaten and hasn’t slow down for the tournament. CSU-Pueblo’s record has one blemish, a 23-22 conference loss to Fort Lewis in the sixth game of the season.
The ThunderWolves went undefeated in 2013 but lost in the second round of the tournament to Grand Valley State.
“I realized after the one loss that of our travel party of 54, we’ve only had one guy who had ever lost a regular season game,” said CSU-Pueblo coach John Wristen. “We had to overcome it, we had to lead as coaches, we had to lead as seniors, and vow that it would not happen again or our playoff chances were done.”
Wristen repeated Bonner’s words that the team’s season hinged on that disappointment.
“I think it opened our eyes that you have to play with a little sense of urgency. You have to play with a little passion every time you step on the field because everybody’s trying to get to a championship,” said Wristen. “You’ve got to do your job, you’ve got to do it better than you’ve ever done it before, and you have to do it with a little passion.”
Bonner spoke about the team’s recent performances in the tournament.
“There’s patches in our season where we weren’t really clicking on offense and since then it’s been better play and better play-calling,” said Bonner. “We’ve had guys stepping up, making plays, and this whole postseason has been a learning experience for us and we’ve come a long way.”
CSU-Pueblo is facing a MSU-Mankato team that is first in points scored in this year’s tournament with 115, but Bonner has help from the ThunderWolves’ defense, which has allowed the fewest points in the tournament with 49.
“Our defense has been playing lights out, putting [the offense] in great positions, forcing turnovers, and just keeping [the offense] on the field,” Bonner said. “It’s been great play all around, everyone’s doing their job and stepping up when we need big plays.”
CSU-Pueblo running back Cameron McDondle currently ranks fourth in Division II in rushing yards with 1,901.
With the midseason loss in the back of the players’ minds, CSU-Pueblo still has all its focus on the game Saturday. Wristen spoke about what it would mean for the program, which is only in its seventh year, to win a national championship.
“It’s one of the unique things that you’re ever going to do in a lifetime. This is a group of guys that will go down in history and have been able to establish something that is so hard to come by,” said Wristen. “These guys laid the foundation about what it takes, how to do it, how to check your egos at the door, and how to show this community that it’s okay to go do something like this.”