The last time the Emporia State Hornets won a playoff game in the football championships, they were led by quarterback Garin Higgins in the late 80s. They were also still an NAIA school at that time, and since becoming a DII program 25 years ago, playoff appearances — never mind wins — became hard to come by.
The former legendary Hornet quarterback is now head coach. Higgins took over the reigns of the ESU football team nine years ago and it was a daunting task to bring them back to relevance. His first five seasons as head coach saw the Hornets finish below .500. But in 2012 it began to turn around.
“My athletic director and administration have been very loyal to me,” head coach Garin Higgins said. “They were patient with me and let me build this program the right way and not have to deviate from our plan. A lot of times you don’t see that in this day and age.”
Now, he has ESU amongst the final 16 teams in the nation. It was no easy task winning their first playoff game in the team’s history as a DII program, as they squared off against the No. 2 seed in the region — and No. 6 team in the nation — Minnesota State-Mankato.
When it came down to the final tick of the clock and the accuracy of ESU kicker Austin Morton’s leg, it made it all the more exciting.
“That was crazy. The first thing going through my head was do I turn my head and watch or shut my eyes?” Higgins said with a laugh.
The Hornets first playoff victory was what some may call an instant classic. They trailed 28-10 — the largest deficit in the team’s history — midway through the second quarter. Somehow, someway, this team rallied the troops and began the improbable comeback.
“I wish I could say some type of magic quote that I told them on the sidelines when we were down,” Higgins said, “but to be quite honest we had been through that already. We’ve been down before against very good football teams and fought back to win.
“We have been a really resilient team and our season has prepared us for a moment like what happened this past Saturday. I don’t think we panicked. Our players felt like that where we are at right now that we can at least get us back in the game and give us a chance.”
The comeback was fueled by senior quarterback Brent Wilson. Wilson himself has been a comeback story his entire football career at ESU.
“He’s dealt with a lot of adversity,” Higgins explained. “He’s had the same collarbone broken twice, his sophomore and junior year. He has that comeback mentality from the things he has had to battle. He’s such a relaxed individual in those times… he’s a lot more relaxed than me in those type of situations. He actually makes me feel better in those situations.”
Wilson led the 2013 team to Higgins first NCAA playoff appearance, but broke his collar in the final game of the season. The Hornets would lose their first NCAA Football Championship playoff appearance since 2003 without their star quarterback 55-13.
Last season, was more of the same. Wilson broke the same collar bone early in the season and the Hornets were never the same. They finished 4-7 and took a little step backwards after going 19-4 over the previous two seasons.
“We learned from last year,” Higgins said. “Going into 2014, we were coming off of that first round loss, and we had a lot of returning players back. I think our expectations were at such a high. We put so much into making the playoffs that when it didn’t happen and we lost some games early our players never recovered from it.
“This year, we took it day by day. We felt we needed to get back to playing football the right way. Playing with a relentless effort, playing together and trying to teach our players to depend on each other.”
Wilson was finally healthy and the Hornets were a force to be reckoned with right out of the gate. They started the season 6-0, with two huge wins over some of the nation’s best in Central Missouri and Pittsburgh State.
“I thought after the Central Missouri game that we had a chance to be pretty good if we stayed healthy and kept Brent healthy,” Higgins said. “We lost a lot of starters defensively after last season, so we struggled early defensively. I knew it was going to take a little time to get better. But I felt really good after that Central game because I felt if we were struggling right now at least we could outscore people.”
Enter last Saturday’s game and Wilson and his offense showed the epitome of the ESU season: resiliency and a high-octane, exciting offense. Wilson would throw for 437 yards and five touchdowns in the comeback, while three receivers — Morris Williams II, Kavaski Ervin, and Mitchell Foote — would eclipse the 100-yard mark.
“He gives so much confidence to our other players,” Higgins spoke of Wilson. “They believe in him so much.”
It was a game for the ages, as ESU would go up by 17 points themselves late in the third quarter, only to see their lead slip away in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter. But Wilson and the Hornets refused to surrender, and attacked down to the last seconds, when Morton’s 33-yard boot won the game 51-49 — the first time in ESU history they won a game on the last play as a DII program.
“We were the worst celebrating team in the country,” Higgins said laughing. “We didn’t know what to do or where to go. I take off running, I don’t even know where I’m running. We’re not used to that type of win. We’ve had some big ones, but definitely not one that big.”
Next up for the Hornet is the No. 8 team in the nation — the Henderson State Reddies. The game isn’t any easier, but Emporia State knows that this is the playoffs. Every team left is good and going to be a challenge, except now, ESU is officially amongst those good teams.
“Our confidence level is very high, but not an over confident level,” Higgins explained. “We believe that regardless of who we are going against, if we keep our head down, play hard and try to win the next play we have a chance to win. I think that win Saturday helped solidify that. We were trying to get over that hump and win that playoff game, so it was like a spark.
“My main job is keep them level headed. There is no reason for us to be the over confident team because we have never been in this position before.”
The win wasn’t only exciting, but very rewarding for a program that had been searching for an identity. Higgins story is a unique one in that he was at the helms of their last playoff win as a player, and currently at the helms of their first playoff win in 25 years. Being a contender was what Higgins always was as a player, and always wanted his players to be as a coach.
“We put a lot of time and effort into turning this program around,” Higgins said. “We felt like we were really close the past two years but came up short. We talk about creating tradition here within our football game. I felt like that was a huge step for us in getting our football program recognized. I think there were a lot of critics that had some question marks about us, so it really felt good to get a little bit of redemption, to get that monkey of our back and say we are a good football program and we can compete with any team in the country.”