When Redlands blew out Whittier on Saturday, they accomplished more than just another victory. The 70-16 massacre secured the Bulldogs' 30th Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title and an automatic bid to the NCAA D3 football playoffs, even with one game left on the schedule.
“Winning conference is always one of our team goals headed into the season,” said senior wide receiver (and team captain) Kevin Johnson, who pulled down five catches for 36 yards and a touchdown in the win at Whittier. “We came up short on that goal the last two years and it was hard to swallow. To be able to pull out some tough wins in the middle of this season and secure this NCAA bid means a lot to the entire team because it is not something that comes around very often.”
Intriguingly, the season started off in disappointing fashion for Redlands. They lost at Trinity (Tex.) in Week 1, 34-27, despite piling up 444 offensive yards. Thankfully, head coach Mike Maynard quickly got his team back on track, leading to a 31-22 victory over George Fox.
“This off season we were determined to become the best athletes we could,” said junior linebacker (and team captain) Mitch Shepherd. “Not only improving our strength as much as possible, but more importantly our speed, quickness and overall conditioning levels. This hard work translated into a successful spring ball, fall camp, and the position we find ourselves now.”
Things really kicked into high gear for the Bulldogs in October. They posted back-to-back-to-back blowout victories over Occidental, La Verne and Chapman before narrowly escaping Claremont-M-S and Pomona-Pitzer — teams last year’s squad fell to on a regular basis.
“This year’s team feels much more unified than the team we had last year,” Shepherd said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman, sophomore, or fifth-year senior, we all see eye to eye. There’s truly a sense of family on our team. When you have 100 plus people in a family, not everyone is going to be best friends, but there’s an undeniable mutual respect and love that we have for each other. This cohesiveness has translated to trusting one another in close games, which I think has resulted in more wins.”
Added Johnson: “Last year, we had a few conference games that went down to the wire and different results really could have changed the outcome of our season. We, for lack of better terms, couldn’t finish in the final minutes of those games last year. This year is different — we are determined. The attitude of this team is we are not going to be beaten; we won’t accept it. We all know how last year felt and how much it hurt. I think that brought the team closer together and lit a fire under us from the first day of spring lifting. It was a whole new team, with a new attitude, and we didn’t want anything but a conference championship. It was important to us to bring honor to the Redlands name and the tradition of excellence our football program is known for.”
It helps to feature a very balanced offensive attack, one that averages 446 yards and 39.6 points per game — coinciding with the emergence of junior QB Mitch Kidd (1,152 passing yards, 15 touchdowns) and a strong running game-by-committee led by Alex Andrighetto (77 rushes for 484 yards and six TDs), Devin Appleton (52 rushes for 357 yards and two TDs) and Connor Kennedy (70 rushes for 309 yards and one TD); along with a stingy defense, one that holds opponents to 335.9 yards and 20.8 points per game.
“Redlands is always known for having a great defense that flies to the ball, gang tackles, and plays with a lot of fire,” Johnson said. “Our offense fed off that this year in the spring and in camp, and has really started to click this season. Our defense and special teams have given us the ball with great field position and it is our responsibility to capitalize on those opportunities with points. Our defense has come up with huge stops in close games against CMS and Pomona. Our season would have a very different look to it without those incredible plays.”
Those explosive plays showed up in a big way against Whittier. The Bulldogs amassed 561 total yards of offense, including 373 passing yards and 188 rushing yards, and scored on 10 of 14 possessions.
“We knew going in to the game that if we played how we know we are capable, the scoreboard would take care of itself,” Shepherd said. “This game highlighted the amount of depth and young talent that we have on our team, which was awesome to see in some game action.”
The Bulldogs have one more game to play versus Cal Lutheran. A win gives them an 8-1 overall record and a lot of momentum going into the playoffs, which is why no one is cracking the Champaign bottles just yet — there’s still a lot of football to play.
“Our coaches congratulated us [about the playoffs] … at our film meeting, but made sure that was the last we spoke of it until next week,” Johnson said. “Our focus is to finish the regular season undefeated in conference and keep the smudge pot here in Redlands.
“I am very proud to be part of this team and Redlands football. This is a very special team, and it has been a great year. I have learned so much from all of the players who I have played with over the years. I hope the younger players will remember this experience and build upon it for next year.”