With heart, skill, and depth, the University of Redlands football team rode early-season momentum through an undeniably successful campaign that resulted in a 7-2 overall record and a 5-1 Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SCIAC) mark. After breaking records against Trinity University (TX) in the home opener, the Bulldogs worked to maintain a high standard of excellence en route to capturing their fifth-straight Smudge Pot trophy in the final game of the season. In addition, Redlands gained multiple individual accolades and achievements along the way to further highlight the high-caliber campaign for Bulldog football.
Equipped with a national ranking of No. 25, Redlands started the season off with a bang by orchestrating a resounding 32-7 win over the visiting Trinity University (TX) Tigers on September 1 in Ted Runner Stadium. While scoring 32 unanswered points to storm out to a sizeable lead, the Bulldogs successfully moved the chains with explosive plays while playing stellar defense that resulted in four interceptions and four sacks. Sophomore defensive back Chad Virgil (Menifee, CA) accounted for two of these big plays with lucrative picks for 47 return yards. Furthermore, junior kicker Nathan Hierlihy (Redondo Beach, CA) split the uprights on a school-record, 55-yard field-goal as a credible hint for what was to come for this highly capable skills player.
Two weeks later, the Bulldogs made the trip to Newberg, Oregon, for a highly-anticipated rematch with the Bruins. Senior defensive back Daniel Gonzales (Mentone, CA) hauled in a pick-six to put Redlands on the board in the second quarter and later snagged another interception to halt the Bruins on their own 15-yard line. The Bulldogs looked to Hierlihy to convert the subsequent field goal that tied it up at 10 apiece. Amidst the defensive battle, GFU split the uprights one last time to send Redlands home with a difficult 10-13 non-conference loss.
Following a bye week, the Bulldogs traveled to Eagle Rock to face Occidental College in what became a non-conference game due to the later cancellation of the Tigers' season. Redlands took advantage of opportunity by playing nearly every available player in the remarkable 72-13 victory. While racking up 667 yards of total offense for the second-most in school history, Redlands also scored seven touchdowns for 72 points for the highest home score since 1999. Late in the game, first-year quarterback Nathan Martinez (Highland, CA) took over the play-calling duties for the Maroon and Gray and led the team into the end zone on three-consecutive Bulldog drives. He also rushed for all three touchdowns, accounting for 73 yards on the scoring plays alone. Furthermore, junior linebacker Nick Castro (La Verne, CA) and junior defensive lineman Joe Munroe (Costa Mesa, CA) spearheaded the amazing defensive effort that limited Oxy's opportunities.
The Maroon and Gray returned home on October 7 to face the University of La Verne in an important conference showdown. Amidst a physical and intense battle, Redlands blew it open with a 21-point, third quarter to secure a 48-14 victory over the Leopards. The Bulldog defense did their part to make this happen, beginning with sophomore defensive back PJ Wilson's (Modesto, CA) second pick of the night, which set up an incredibly short field for the offense. Junior quarterback Levi Plante (Lake Arrowhead, CA) quickly made his way into the end zone on a two-yard jaunt for a touchdown. Less than two minutes later, Gonzales hauled in an interception, which Redlands quickly turned into an explosive, 41-yard touchdown reception from Plante to a wide-open senior wide receiver Alex Andrighetto (Portola Valley, CA). Finally, the Bulldogs remained relentless on defense, with Castro, senior defensive back Michael Stallone (Redlands, CA), freshman defensive back Spencer Conley (La Quinta, CA), and senior linebacker Mitch Shepherd (Seattle, WA) providing critical plays.
Redlands hit the road for its next SCIAC game, which took place in Orange against the Chapman University Panthers. Despite out-scoring the Panthers in the second half, an uncharacteristically poor start provided enough of a window for Chapman to hand the Bulldogs what would be their only conference loss of the season.
With four games remaining, the Maroon and Gray relied on its mantra of attitude, character, and effort to push through to victory against all four conference opponents.
Against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps Colleges on the road, the Bulldogs overcame a five-point halftime deficit and showed no mercy by overwhelming the Stags in a 42-25 decision. Redlands' 30-point second half was due in part to the stellar play of the offensive line that included junior Tommy Garcia (La Habra, CA), freshman Anthony Vargas (Grand Terrace, CA), senior Zachary Vazquez (Beaumont, CA), senior Toma Suafoa-Aumavae, senior Mike Serrano (San Diego, CA), and senior Danny Badgley (Fairwood, CA). With their help, Plante racked up 298 passing yards and three touchdowns through the air while connecting with senior wide receiver Cole Blackburn (Seattle, WA) on a team-leading 132 yards. Plante also ran for 143 yards on 15 carries, as junior running back Josiah Alvira (Danville, CA) scored twice and negotiated 54 yards on the ground.
Redlands stayed hot in its Homecoming contest against Pomona-Pitzer Colleges by building an early lead with 35 first-half points and minimizing the Sagehens' chances with an outstanding defense that allowed only 25 rushing yards. The Bulldogs ultimately won by a score of 42-20, which included three touchdowns by Plante on three-consecutive Bulldog drives. With the help of critical gains by Alvira, junior running back Conner Kennedy (Olympia, WA), and senior wide receiver Kyle Kabeary (Indio, CA), Plante successfully broke into the end zone on carries of 43, 16, and 26 yards. Late in the game, he added another touchdown for four rushing scores in one game. Junior defensive lineman Joe Munroe (Costa Mesa, CA), senior defensive lineman Tristan Corwin (Wildomar, CA), and junior linebacker Pete Riccolo (Morris, IL) played an integral role in pressuring the opposing quarterback into ill-advised passes, resulting in 10 quarterback hurries between them.
After recognizing 27 Bulldogs in their final game at Ted Runner Stadium, the Maroon and Gray left no doubt against Whittier College in a recording-breaking, 76-7 victory on November 4. While lighting up the scoreboard with the most points in school history, Redlands also held the Poets scoreless until late in the fourth quarter with an impressive defensive effort. Overall, the final home game of the regular season proved to be a roaring success for the Bulldogs, who utilized the majority of its large roster in a total team effort. Among the highlights, Shepherd hauled in an interception on the Poets' opening drive, which set up Kennedy's touchdown. Gonzales also snagged a pick in the end zone to eliminate a potential Poet score. The fourth quarter included field goals by sophomore kickers Alexander Raya (Jamul, CA) and Joey Mendoza (Rancho Cucamonga, CA), as well as a three-yard rushing touchdown by senior quarterback Mitch Kidd (Salinas, CA). Junior running back Nathaniel Nguyen-Barkus (Novato, CA) and sophomore running back Dalton Lohman (San Clemente, CA) also stepped up as effective ball-carriers for the Bulldogs. Led by senior Matthew Schallert (Canyon Lake, CA), the O-line played a critical role in the team's most productive rushing game of the season while not giving up a sack.
In the Bulldogs' final game of the season, they traveled to Thousand Oaks to take on the Cal Lutheran University Kingsmen in the annual Smudge-Pot showdown. After trailing by eight at halftime, Redlands made the necessary adjustments to overtake the lead while shutting out the Kingsmen in the final two-plus quarters. Cal Lutheran's final offensive drive was foiled by intense coverage and big stops, including those from senior defensive back Dustin Nascimento (Aiea, HI), senior linebacker Curren Lapes (Ladera Ranch, CA), and sophomore defensive lineman Elias Hackney (Santa Monica, CA). With a hard-fought, 21-17 win, the Bulldogs captured the coveted trophy for the fifth-consecutive season. Hierlihy provided a critical role by converting five field goals in the triumph, including his third of the season from 50 yards or more.
Following the conclusion of the solid season, Redlands racked up 15 All-SCIAC awards among 13 student-athletes in an impressive showing. Shepherd, Gonzales, Munroe, Garcia, and Hierlihy (as a kicker) each landed on the First Team, while Blackburn, Suafoa-Aumavae, Schallert, Plante, Alvira, Corwin, Lapes, and Nascimento representing Redlands on the Second Team. Hierlihy also gained a spot on the Second-Team as a punter.
Furthermore, Hierlihy was named a finalist for the prestigious Fred Mitchell Award, which celebrates place-kickers' success on the field and in the community through service and involvement. He also gained D3football.com All-West Region honors and a spot on the Associated Press Division III All-America Second Team.
Gonzales also reeled in distinguished awards with a D3football.com All-West Region nod and a spot on the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) All-America First Team. He was tabbed a finalist for the 2017 Cliff Harris Award, which honors the top defensive player in NAIA and NCAA Division II and III.
While shining in the classroom and on the field, junior offensive lineman Christian Godina (Glendale, AZ) represented Bulldog football as a College Sports Information Directors of America (CoSIDA) Academic All-America First-Team selection for NCAA Division III football. He became the first Redlands football player to receive this honor since Brett Hutter in 2011.
In addition, the 2017 edition of Redlands football has much to celebrate as a team, including top national rankings in various statistical categories in Division III football. The Maroon and Gray finished among the top 15 in 10 categories, including the best in net punting (39.16) and turnovers lost (9). Redlands threw only three interceptions in nine games, which placed it second in the nation with the lowest in school history. The Bulldogs ranked sixth in kickoff returns (25.23) and turnover margin (1.33). Individually, Gonzales led all of NCAA Division III with the most interceptions per game (1.0) and came in third in passes defended (2.1).
With plenty of momentum and success to build upon, the Bulldog football team looks to the challenging task of filling the void left by such a talented senior class. But the squad also boasts incredible depth with viable experience gained throughout the successful campaign in 2017. Under the direction of Head Coach Mike Maynard and his staff, Redlands works to make the necessary steps to return to the top of the conference and beyond.