Those who entrenched the customary end-of-practice huddle — players, assistant coaches and team officials —listened closely as the University of San Diego’s fifth-year football leader, Ron Caragher, spoke about the importance of executing the game plan, staying focused and eliminating mistakes. Typical talk, really, leading up to a big game.
Moments later, though, things took a complete turn. Everyone suddenly broke out a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” to a member of “the brotherhood,” as these Toreros call themselves. Satisfaction visible through the smiles, singing and sounds of laughter, this two-hour practice ended on a upbeat note.
That’s one way to keep a team loose while vying for its first Pioneer Football League championship since 2007. The Toreros (8-2 overall, 6-1 PFL) host Jacksonville at 1 p.m. Saturday in the season finale for both teams. The winner of this game shares the PFL title with Drake (9-2, 7-1), whose only league loss this season came against USD.
“It’s the last game for these guys, a week of lasts,” said Caragher, who has a 35-19 record as USD’s head coach. “There’s really nothing like going out and winning your last game, and on top of that it’s an opportunity to win a championship. Our guys have so worked hard all season and it would be great to see us finish that task at home.”
Mason Mills (pictured, left), a redshirt sophomore quarterback who has thrown for 2,224 yards and 21 touchdowns, had his helmet in one hand and his mind on getting to his biology class as he left the practice field. He stopped, however, when asked about Saturday’s game.
“It’s going to be the biggest game most of us have played since we’ve been here,” he said. Winning a title would mean a lot to him, but he wants to help send 21 senior teammates off with a share of the PFL championship and the program’s fourth overall. “It’s a huge game in our football history. We’re focused on it. We’re ready to roll.”
Nobody has to remind Loka Kanongataa what’s at stake. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound safety is a fifth-year senior. He redshirted in 2007 and witnessed USD’s last PFL championship season from afar. His USD playing career has featured highs such as being an All-PFL selection in 2008 and 2010, a PFL Academic Honor Roll member in 2009 and he’s been among the team leaders in tackles each season. The lows have come when he’s missed games due to injury.
“This season is, by far, the best one for me because it’s been my first healthy season,” said Kanongataa (pictured, right), naming his medical history that includes two knee surgeries and shoulder and ankle injuries. Healthy all season in 2011 — “knock on wood,” he adds — the Seattle native has 61 total tackles and two interceptions and said he’s thankful for where things stand.
“There’s something about it being the senior year and we’re playing for something to remember,” he said.
Caragher remembers. He arrived in 2007 as the replacement for Jim Harbaugh, who left USD to take the head coaching job at Stanford University and is now the rookie head coach of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers. Caragher inherited a cupboard full of talent from Harbaugh. That title team featured senior quarterback Josh Johnson, standout defensive lineman Eric Bakhtiari and John Matthews. All three players are still in the NFL mix, specifically Johnson, backup quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who made him the first-ever Torero player selected in the NFL Draft when he was picked in the fifth round in 2008.
Five years later, Caragher’s team — including five fifth-year seniors — consists solely of his recruits and, on Saturday, they’ll seek their own place in school history.
“You want to compete for conference championships year in, year out. This year, we’ve put ourselves in a position to compete for a championship,” Caragher said. “We’re looking forward to the opportunity. Jacksonville’s the last hurdle and we have to take care of business.”
Some of Caragher’s players on offense include sophomore running back Kenny James (1,029 yards, 11 touchdowns, 95-yard kickoff return TD) and receivers Sam Hoekstra (sophomore, 52 receptions, 544 yards, 6 TDs; 85-yard TD punt return to beat Drake), John McGough (redshirt senior, 38, 642, 4 TD) and Brandon White (freshman, 42, 538, 5 TD).
Defensive standouts include redshirt sophomore defensive end Blake Oliaro (13.5 sacks, 52 total tackles, including 18 for losses), senior defensive end Mario Kurn (nine sacks, 45 tackles, 1 interception for TD), junior linebacker Zach Dunaj (team-high 70 tackles, two sacks), redshirt senior linebacker Joe Martin (41 tackles, two interceptions) and redshirt junior safety Joey York (team-high three interceptions).
Saturday’s game won’t only require a big-game effort because of the title implications, but the Toreros, especially the seniors, want to snap a three-year losing streak against the Dolphins (7-3, 6-1). The overall series record between the teams is 3-3.
“They’re the only thing standing in the way of a championship,” Kanongataa said. “Since spring ball, the coaches told us to visualize what we wanted. The team’s goal has been to win the PFL. We’ve played hard all season and now we have a chance to do it. It’s going to feel really good getting out onto the field and seeing the other seniors’ faces. The atmosphere will be crazy. Everyone will be pumped.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
Mason Mills photo courtesy of Scottphoto.net