SIOUX CITY -- The job is far from done, of course, as the Morningside College football team starts gearing up for an NAIA championship game Dec. 15 in Daytona Beach, Fla.
Nonetheless, at the risk of winding up on a bulletin board in Atchison, Kan., the magical finish to an extraordinary semifinal on Saturday seemed to reaffirm what many of us have seen coming for quite a few years.
Coach Steve Ryan’s program and its relentless pursuit of a national title has been quite a story to behold. Through 15 consecutive years of postseason appearances -- one of the Mustangs’ many NAIA records -- there have been too many near misses.
And, with longtime teammates Trent Solsma and Connor Niles returning for one last go-round, this has seemed all along like a team of destiny.
Needless to say, whether or not that destiny is finally fulfilled is the only question that remains for a group that is 14-0 -- a school record for wins -- after 34-28 overtime thriller over two-time defending champion St. Francis of Fort Wayne, Ind.
The Solsma/Niles story line is familiar, no doubt, to most of you. The impact of the former Bishop Heelan quarterback/wide receiver parlay can’t be overstated.
Before making it sound as if these two record-shattering playmakers are the primary reason Morningside is headed for Florida, it’s important not to overlook the obvious. Namely, this final game matchup with seventh-ranked Kansas Benedictine (13-1) wouldn’t have happened without lots of other outstanding performers.
Yes, Solsma and Niles have broken so many school and national records that it’s almost impossible to list them all. Yes, they’re the backbone of an offense that leads the nation with 571.5 yards a game. However, the stars of Heelan’s 2013 state championship team have absolutely nothing to do with Morningside also leading the nation in defense, limiting rivals to just 252.5 yards per contest.
It was that defensive unit that made a couple game-saving fourth-quarter stops against a determined St. Francis team that seemed to have stolen all of the momentum from the Mustangs’ eight-time defending Great Plains Athletic Conference champs. Then, that stingy bunch made the biggest stop of all in the overtime period against a rival that had ended Morningside’s last two seasons in heart-wrenching fashion -- 43-36 last year and 42-35 the year before.
Solsma and Niles have had plenty of help on their own side of the ball, to be sure. Bo Els, Reid Jurgensmeier and Addison Ross have been three more invaluable options in the receiving corps and sophomore Arnijae “A.P.” Ponder has blossomed with 1,549 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns (25 if you add his three TD receptions).
Counting the kicker (Jared Amundson from East High) and punter (Spencer Wyant from Sergeant Bluff-Luton), Morningside had a whopping 16 of its 24 starters honored as first-team All-GPAC performers. As if I need to say it, that’s a staggering number.
Senior all-leaguers Garrit Shanle and Garrett Temme lead interference up front along with junior tight end Riley Rischling, another all-conference pick. Meanwhile, the rest of the line consists of sophomores Hunter Behrens, Louis Gray and Nathan Nissen.
While seven starters should return next fall on offense, the Mustangs’ NAIA-leading defense could bring back nine regulars -- all but defensive tackle Chase Reis and all-loop cornerback Xavier Spann.
Defensive ends Niklas Gustav and Seth Maitlen, two more All-GPAC selections, are only sophomores, as is cornerback Steven Evans, one of six honorable mention performers. Juniors who made the league’s top unit are defensive tackle Alex Paulson, safety Klayton Nordeen and the team’s twin linebackers Joel and Jacob Katzer.
This is certainly not to say linebacker Chase Nelson and safety Deion Clayborne, two more juniors on the honorable mention list, haven’t had big moments throughout the season.
As we’ve so often heard, in a team game like football, success hinges on having few if any weak links. The Mustangs are definitely solid throughout the lineup.
Which brings us back to Solsma and Niles, now more than five years removed from that Class 3A state title game on Nov. 21, 2013. Hard to get that 47-14 drubbing of Washington in a contest that saw Heelan break or tie 13 records for the 3A championship contest -- four of those all-class bests.
Solsma passed for 453 yards and six touchdowns, two of the all-class records, while Niles hauled in nine receptions for 193 yards.
After throwing for 3,149 yards and 39 scores as a junior, both city records, Solsma’s senior year produced new marks of 3,586 yards and 45 touchdowns. And those 45 TD tosses tied for second best ever in Iowa. Niles’ senior year netted 76 receptions for 1,302 yards in an offense that also got a very nice year from South Dakota State baseball recruit Philip Jacobson (51 catches for 936 yards).
As a freshman at Morningside the following year, Solsma redshirted while senior Ryan Kasdorf, a former Gatorade Player of the Year in talent-rich California, finished up an excellent career for the Mustangs.
Niles, on the other hand, was put to work immediately and wouldn’t have still been around this fall if not for a season ending injury in the 2016 season opener, his original junior year. What seemed to be a devastating loss at the time is now a big reason why Morningside, which lost an overtime national championship game in 2012, has another shot at the brass ring.
For the record, I might add, Solsma’s gaudy career numbers are now 948 of 1,359, a .698 percentage, for 13,741 yards and 161 touchdowns. That’s moving the ball more than 137 football fields.
Niles’ enters the national final with 360 career receptions for 6,175 yards and 70 scores, shattering the school’s all-time bests in all three categories.
None of this matters, obviously, to a confident Benedictine team that has won 11 in a row since a 28-21 loss Sept. 8 to an Evangel (Mo.) team that missed the playoffs with a 9-2 record. The sixth-ranked Kansas Wesleyan squad derailed by the Ravens on Saturday was also undefeated.
Be that as it may, this is the first title game for Benedictine, which was 4-13 in 13 playoff trips before this year, losing 11 first-round games while reaching the semifinals in 1992 and 2001 -- the last time the Atchison school won a postseason game.
Yes, that other team should be a challenging test. Still, while Morningside leads the nation in eight team statistics and eight individual departments, Benedictine ranks first in just one stat -- third-down conversions.