Jan 8, 2014, 9:52 AM EDT
For the Tigers of Towson, the 2013 football season was truly remarkable. The team lived and died by its “leave no doubt” mantra, even sporting special tees displaying it on the back while in Frisco, Texas, for the national title game.
Though the Tigers walked off the field on Saturday without their desired outcome following a 35-7 defeat to three-peat champion North Dakota State, there’s no doubt that everyone involved in the program will forever remember their storied season.
Those familiar with CAA Football can grasp just how incredible Towson’s rise to the top has been. After all, in head coach Rob Ambrose’s first two seasons at the helm, the team won a total of three games and was a relative unknown in a league that’s produced plenty of quality FCS programs.
Perseverance paid off for Ambrose and his Tigers, as they enjoyed a breakout 2011 campaign that saw them win the CAA Football crown and reach the FCS Playoffs for the first time. And after a rigorous 2012 schedule left the squad with a 7-4 mark and surprisingly shut out of the playoffs, the Tigers immediately returned to work last offseason.
“We represented this level of football extremely well that year,” Ambrose said of the 2012 season prior to Saturday’s title game. “The best quote I heard this week was that if things had been a little different in someone else’s eyes, this game would have been a rematch, and I like that.”
Interestingly enough, while many consider the Tigers’ 2012 team as Ambrose’s best thus far, this year’s squad seemed to put together the perfect formula to reach Frisco. It needed a veteran and capable leader under center in fifth-year senior Peter Athens, a talented offensive line– complemented by a running back in Terrance West who many consider to be the best in the FCS–as well as an overly aggressive, physical defense that refused to fear any opponent. The team raced through the regular season with a 10-2 record before reeling off three impressive playoff victories over dangerous offensive juggernauts in Fordham, second-seeded Eastern Illinois and third-seeded Eastern Washington, with the latter two coming on the road.
“We’re just playing with a chip on our shoulder,” West told media members during Friday’s press conference. “We’re not even supposed to be here according to a lot of people.”
Although the Tigers couldn’t get past the impenetrable wall that is the three-time champion Bison, just getting to Frisco was itself an incredible accomplishment. Let’s face it, a couple years ago, who would have ever thought that Towson would have chance to win the FCS Championship? Admittedly, I myself was probably one of those people.
“Now, as far as the character of this team, I’ve said this time and time again: Hard work, faith, belief and love in a family is magic,” Ambrose noted at Friday’s presser. “It’s hard to come by in today’s world. Take a bunch of guys from massively different socioeconomic levels and bring them all together. One of the things we say when we bring them in house is that we don’t really care about where you came from, but it’s more important where we’re going.”
Ambrose and the Tigers have come such a long way while remaining unafraid of reminiscing about the program’s struggles. It seems easy to see that the recipe for success can be obtained with a couple special ingredients, which is great news for the newest CAA Football members in UAlbany, Stony Brook and now Elon beginning in 2014.
In my opinion, CAA Football is just as relevant as ever and still qualifies as the “SEC of the FCS” (imagine if that was our actual slogan). Towson entered the title weekend trying to become the fifth different league team to win the national title since 2003. Check that again, the fifth different team! That’s quality depth. Delaware, James Madison, Richmond and Villanova were the other teams to take home the title crown during that stretch, while UD (2007, 2010) and UMass (2006) lost in the title game along the way.
CAA Football went 6-3 in the playoffs this season with just three teams out of the overall 24 in the field. Let’s also keep in mind that Maine and New Hampshire squared off against each other, while the Wildcats also made their first-ever trip to the semifinals. Overall, CAA Football finished with a 27-11 combined record versus non-conference FCS foes and with every team playing a complete Division I schedule. The league had four teams ranked inside the top 100 of the final 2013 Sagarin ratings: Towson No. 66, Villanova No. 88, New Hampshire No. 89 and William & Mary No. 92.
The idea of taking over a struggling program, let alone being a new coach in the conference, had to be daunting.
“When I got in the league as the head guy and got a chance to spend some time with some of the head coaches,” Ambrose added, “they all said the same thing: That this league will prepare you for the playoffs unlike anything you can possibly imagine and that you can actually be a mid-level team in our conference and do well in the playoffs because it’s so hard week after week. The quality of ball, the quality of football players and the quality of coaching [in CAA Football] is really impressive, and it hardens you. It toughens you and gives you the opportunity to be successful in this level.”
While the 2013 journey came to a tough end on Saturday, the strides made by Towson have certainly not gone unnoticed.
“I love this team and everything that it’s about,” said senior linebacker Telvion Clark following the loss to NDSU. “We’ve built a lot throughout the course of the season, even before the season started and in the offseason I saw things building. I saw things starting to mold out. And I think we really proved a lot this year, although it didn’t end the way we wanted it to. I couldn’t be more proud of my guys, our guys, and the things that we’ve accomplished.”
“We’ve been building this since day one,” added a disappointed but proud Ambrose following the loss to the Bison. “The construction project is not over. It’s not there yet, but we’re certainly getting there.”
The foundation continues to develop for the Tigers and the next phase is set to take shape on Aug. 30 when they host Central Connecticut State to open up the new season.
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