Updated: December 26, 2013 6:34AM
Less than a decade ago Cory Sanders was playing for his third coach in four years at St. Joseph’s College, where he earned defensive MVP honors in 2005. Now he’s presiding over the same program.
“Yeah, time flies,” he said a week after SJC produced an 8-3 record.
Not so fast if you’re 28, which makes him the youngest coach in the Great Lakes Valley Conference, and one of the youngest in Division II football.
Sanders guided the Pumas to their best season and nearly derailed GLVC champion Indianapolis.
That 27-24 loss was one of eight nail nibblers in a nerve-wracking season.
“Eight games decided by eight points or less,” said Sanders. Asked about turning prematurely grey, he chuckled, “I’m already losing a lot of hair.”
Testifying to their toughness, the Pumas overcame a 28-0 deficit to beat William Jewell. They did it without their graduating quarterback Billy VandeMerkt, who struggled with a high ankle sprain and a dislocated elbow.
Pinch-hitting quarterback Tate Borlik engineered two late-season victories, earning GLVC player of the week honors for throwing two touchdown passes in the last six minutes and setting up Gavin Voss’ field goal to force the overtime.
Over the last three games, Borlik completed 50 of 88 passes for 512 yards and three touchdowns. Not bad for a grind-it-out offensive team.
“I think Tate would have started for a lot of GLVC teams,” Sanders said.
Bucking the national trend, Sanders takes pride in being an offensive throwback.
“Being a defensive guy, I have a physical mentality,” he said.
Translation: running the football is a priority. Result: the Pumas led the GLVC in that department with a 225-yard average.
They thrived with all-GLVC running back Braxton Shelton, only the fifth 1,000-yard rusher in SJC history; and Kobi Cook, a transfer from Ohio Dominican who added 827 yards.
Operating behind a strong offensive line headed by all-conference tackle Jakob Styla and LaPorte’s Scott Vaughn, who switched from tight end to right tackle, SJC’s hurry-up assault clicked consistently.
“We moved him when Pat Robinson broke his hand,” said Sanders. “Scott bought into the switch.”
It wasn’t a difficult transition for Vaughn, who is listed as a 245-pound lineman, but is now pushing 280.
“I’m shooting for 300 during the off-season,” he said, hoping added muscle will surface as he trims pounds next August.
His athleticism makes him an ideal choice for SJC’s up-tempo game.
“We overpowered a lot of teams because they couldn’t handle our tempo,” said Vaughn, one of nine returning offensive starters.
His days as a tight end appear to be over.
“He’s not going anywhere,” said Sanders.
Neither is team captain Trent Hall, an offensive lineman; or all-conference linebackers Gary Yeoman and Joel Wimbley.
Yeoman, also a team captain, led the league in sacks (8.5). Wimbley finished second in tackles for losses (16.5) and is a candidate for small college defensive player of the year.
“They made a lot of plays in crunch time,” said Sanders, who shares the reluctance of many coaches to single out individuals. “It wasn’t just one or two guys. I could go down a long list.”
Multiple contributors helped SJC improve from 6-5 to eight victories. Yeoman shares that blueprint for success.
“That was a big step for the program,” he said. “Now we want to take it to the next level.”
To snatch the crown they’ll have to wrestle it from Indianapolis, which landed a dozen players on the all-GLVC first team and is presided over by Bob Bartolomeo, the reigning coach of the year.
Nothing to get up-tight about, according to Vaughn.
“Our coaches always say, ‘don’t worry about them, worry about us.’ ”
They might not get style points for offense, but the Pumas don’t have to score in bunches.
Not as long as they can ram the football down their opponent’s throat. Or beat Truman State without scoring a touchdown.
If Sanders can recruit enough talent from the Chicago Catholic League in December, you can expect the Pumas to grind out a GLVC contender. His roster is already stocked with more than 20 players from the Chicagoland Area.
Northwest Indiana fans will get a first-hand glimpse at the Pumas next season. They open with a night game at Valparaiso on Sept. 6.
Considering the often inhospitable spring climate in Northwest Indiana, Valparaiso University’s baseball recruiters have done a remarkable job of enticing players from sunny California.
Seven players from the west coast, including outfielders Chris Manning and Bryce Hara, helped the Crusaders eliminate Florida from the NCAA tournament in their first NCAA appearance in 44 years.
First-year coach Brian Schmack, picking up where Tracy Woodson left off, has signed four highly regarded players, including Californians Giovanni Garbella and Daniel Delaney.
Garbella was a standout outfielder from Cathedral Catholic (La Jolla), which was the top-ranked high school in the country last season. He was also named the tournament MVP of the under-18 European meet as a member of the championship Italian National team.
Delaney, a transfer from Fresno State, can play either first base or catch.
Nolan Lodden, a native Iowan who batted .368 at George Washington, also transferred; and pitcher Luke Van Lanen is rated a top five prospect out of Wisconsin.
Valparaiso will make its debut on Feb. 14 at Samford, Alabama. The 15-game trip will include swings through Louisiana and Texas.