‘One play at a time’: Behind Stag football’s first SCIAC title in 31 years

Garrett Cheadle HM ’20 looks to cut upfield against Cal Lutheran Oct. 6. (Timothy Liu • The Student Life)

“One play at a time” is a common mantra of many teams — the idea being that focusing on the present, rather than long-term goals, leads to more success.

For the Claremont-Mudd-Scripps football team, fully adopting this mindset finally pushed them over the hump, as they won their first SCIAC title in 31 years in 2018.

Mark Odin, the CMS defensive coordinator, brought the mentality to the team years ago. However, it was never fully emphasized by the team’s leadership until this season.

“He says it every year,” captain LB Mitchell Allan CM ’19 said. “What was different this year is that the team’s leadership was willing to enforce that mentality.”

OL Brian Wahl CM ’19 added: “Instead of focusing on winning the SCIAC Championship or going to the playoffs, we turned it around and focused on ‘one play.’ By focusing on the small picture, we believed it would add up to the big picture.”

The Stags entered 2018 in a 31-year SCIAC title drought, dating back to 1987. They almost broke the streak twice in 2015 and 2016, but finished second both seasons.

The start of the season didn’t give Stag fans much hope that the conference title drought would end; they began the year 1-2 following losses at Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran. However, a much-needed bye week allowed the Stags to refocus before entering SCIAC play two weeks later against La Verne.

“I’d be lying if I didn’t say that we had to move some puzzle pieces around on defense and offense (in the bye week) to find the right fits,” Allan said.

CMS looked like an entirely new team in their first SCIAC game, and four passing touchdowns by QB Jake Norville CM ’21, who returned from injury, propelled them to a 37-24 win. After the victory, the Stags began to roll and rattled off six straight conference wins.

One constant emerged during the winning streak: stifling defense. Despite starting only two seniors on defense, the Stags held opponents to a suffocating 13.5 points per game during the stretch.

“Defensively, we had a little mean streak about us,” DL Torben Deese CM ’22 said. “We wanted to beat people up and have fun.”

The winning streak was capped off by back-to-back home victories, both historic affairs.

The first, a 34-21 win over Whittier Oct. 27, saw a re-writing of the CMS record books. Running back Garrett Cheadle HM ’20 rushed for 274 yards on only 22 carries, settling the single-game CMS rushing record. He also reached the 1,000 yard rushing plateau on the season, becoming the first CMS running back to do so since 2002.  

“It was something that, 30 years from now, I’ll be able to look back and say ‘I remember that game. I remember that moment,’” Allan said.

While Cheadle’s on-field accomplishments carried the Stags all season, his teammates emphasized his demeanor off the field.

“He’s an amazing athlete, but what people don’t know about him is how much better of a person he is,” Allan said. “He is always holding his head high, he is always happy, he is always smiling, and he is always leading by example.”

The following week, the Stags took on Chapman in their final home game, with a chance to clinch a share of the coveted conference title.

The Stags led Redlands by one game in the SCIAC at the time, with only two weeks remaining in the conference slate. They held the potential tiebreaker after defeating Redlands Oct. 13, so a win over the Bulldogs would give them an NCAA berth — the first in program history.

The CMS defense had arguably their best game of the season, holding the high-powered Panther offense to 175 yards, after they entered averaging 431 yards per game. The defense led the Stags to a 16-9 win, which clinched the conference — and NCAA berth — on CMS’ Senior Day.

“To be able to do that in front of a home crowd … was really important,” Allan said. “As a senior, working from the bottom all the way up, it’s a really special thing to finally do my senior year.”

Heading into their final SCIAC game of the season, CMS had hopes of completing an undefeated conference schedule with a win over Sixth Street rival Pomona-Pitzer. However, an injury to Cheadle in the first quarter immediately changed their outlook.

They fought for the rest of the contest but eventually fell 24-19, unable to formulate a potent offensive attack without their star halfback.

Following the loss, the Stags drew Whitworth in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but would still be playing without Cheadle. CMS fell 48-6 in Spokane, once again stifled with limited offensive ability.

“You hate to see [Cheadle’s injury] in the last two games,” Wahl said. “But it’s alright. At that point, he had helped secure us a SCIAC Championship.”

Winning the SCIAC and reaching the NCAA Tournament were clearly the goals for the program entering the year, even though they were more focused on taking it “one play at a time.”

“This is the ultimate goal, to win a SCIAC Championship,” Wahl said.

The title is the finishing touch on a rebuild head coach Kyle Sweeney has orchestrated since he took over eight seasons ago.

“I think he’s done great things for the program in terms of changing the culture. … The kind of players he brings in want to work together to win and have a similar mindset,” Wahl said. “For me, from coming in as a [first-year] and looking up at the seniors, and now as a senior looking down, I think there’s been a great culture shift.”

Wahl added that in Claremont, the shift has been two-fold; both the players and coaches have made adjustments.

“In terms of coaching, they’re more approachable and have a better understanding of the CMS  athletes that we are,” he explained. “As players, there’s a more ‘all-in-this-together’ relationship, where all the players are playing together, and there’s a lot less selfishness and individual attitudes.”

Allan added that the team’s mentality has shifted markedly since the seniors arrived four years ago and that it ultimately paid off.

“The culture change has been absolutely substantial,” he said. “When we first got here, it was like, ‘Hey we’re a good football team, let’s win games, but let’s have fun because we’re college kids.’ But now, it’s like, ‘We’re here, let’s work hard, and win a championship.’”

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