Written by Chris Pendleton and Sean Dahlin
BUENA VISTA, Va.−As the Southern Virginia University football program turns a decade old this year, it's time to look back at the program's journey since its inception in 2003.
Fourth-year Head Coach DeLane Fitzgerald, who is entering his seventh year as part of Southern Virginia's football program after joining the team in 2006 as a special teams and defensive backs coach, recently reflected on the program's journey to this point.
"I've seen Southern Virginia University football grow from humble beginnings into what it is today," said Fitzgerald. "I hope to see another ten years in which the Knights reach even greater heights and gain national recognition as an elite NCAA Division III football program.
Southern Virginia began its football program in 2003 under the tutelage of Head Coach Gary Buer (2003-06). Buer's inaugural roster had 63 members compared to this year's 83-man roster and the team practiced on Chandler Field in front of the Dining Hall instead of a state-of-the-art artificial turf field that the team uses today.
Buer came to Southern Virginia with 17 years collegiate coaching experience and built the program from the ground up by recruiting quality players that are still atop the Southern Virginia record books. In fact, Buer recruited two of the program's first three All-Americans—McKay Dunn (2007 NAIA First Team All-American) and current assistant football coach Tirell Hiatt (2008 NAIA Honorable Mention All-American)—who together hold nearly every receiving record in school history.
Matt Mellor (2004, 08-10) was another Buer recruit, who finished his career only two years ago as Southern Virginia's all-time leader in total tackles (282) and unassisted tackles (179) until both records were broken last season by Tommy Davidson (2008-11).
After serving as offensive coordinator in 2006, Mike Smith took over as Southern Virginia's head coach in 2007 and used the foundation laid by Buer to elevate the program to new heights compiling a 9-13 overall record during his only two seasons from 2007-08. Smith's career winning percentage (.409) still ranks first among all Southern Virginia head football coaches.
The highlight of Smith's tenure came during his first season in 2007 when he guided the Knights to a 6-5 overall record securing the first and only winning season in program history–Southern Virginia's 2007 team will be honored at halftime of this Saturday's home game against Virginia University of Lynchburg.
With Smith at the helm, Fitzgerald as his offensive coordinator and J.C. McDonald—the program's current offensive coordinator—as his pass-game coordinator, Southern Virginia's 2007 squad broke nearly every offensive record in the program's history, including yards gained (rushing, passing and total) and points scored as the Knights finished seventh in the NAIA for total offense (474.3 yards per game)—their highest finish ever.
The Knights' high-powered offense was fueled by quarterback Luke Taylor (2007-08), who still holds the single-season records for total offense (3,211 yards), pass completions (214), passing yards (3,292), passing touchdowns (31), pass completion percentage (61.0%) and pass efficiency rating (160.3).
Taylor's favorite target that year was wide receiver McKay Dunn (2004-07), who set records for single-season all-purpose yards (2,170 yards), pass receptions (111), pass reception yards (1,681) and pass reception touchdowns (14) on route to becoming the program's first NAIA First Team All-American.
Another significant contributor to Southern Virginia's offense in 2007 was running back Hayes Page (2005-07), who earned VaSID All-State Second Team honors, while setting single-season program records for rushing (1,531 yards), rushing yards-per-game (139.2 ypg), total points scored (100), total touchdowns (16) and rushing touchdowns (14). All records still stand except Page's single-season rushing touchdowns mark, which Jerry Washington (Gloucester, Va.) broke last season when he rushed for 15 touchdowns.
On the defensive side of the ball, linebacker Rick Kailiponi (2006-07) and defensive back Shea Owens (2006-08) both earned 2007 VaSID All-State Second Team honors after finishing first and second on the team in total tackles. Kailiponi set the single-season total tackles record with 126 tackles, which stood for four seasons before Davidson recorded 133 total tackles last year.
In 2009, Fitzgerald was named Southern Virginia's third head football coach and has posted a 12-25 overall record during his tenure, including back-to-back 4-7 seasons in 2010 and 2011. Last season, Fitzgerald passed Mike Smith and became the program's all-time winningest coach.
Outside of Dunn and Hiatt, Fitzgerald coached the only other Southern Virginia football All-American Tyler Card who earned NAIA Honorable Mention All-America honors during Fitzgerald's first season in 2009.
Fitzgerald's team last season did not quite reach the lofty heights of 2007, but the 2011 Knights definitely left their mark in the Southern Virginia record books breaking the single-season rushing touchdowns record and finishing second all-time in yards gained (rushing, passing and total offense).
Running back Jerry Washington (Glouchester, Va.) was stellar during his rookie season a year ago earning 2011 NAIA All-Independent Second Team honors after recording 906 rushing yards, which already ranks third all-time in Southern Virginia history. Quarterback Mitch Steven also had a memorable sophomore season throwing for the second-most single-season passing yards (2,106 yards) and completions (182) of any Southern Virginia signal caller.
Last year's defense also set program marks for single-season tackles-for-loss (84.5), quarterback sacks (31.0) and interceptions (22).
Defensive captain and senior linebacker Tommy Davidson became the program's first 2011 NAIA Independent Defensive Player of the Year after setting career records for total tackles (342) and unassisted tackles (211). Davidson also received help up front from Luke Herndon (Mechanicsville, Va.) who joined Washington on the 2011 NAIA All-Independent Second Team.
Herndon, who was recently spotlighted on athletics.svu.edu, also became one of the first four football players in university history to earn USCAA national academic honors last spring.
"Luke [Herndon] is just one example of the hundreds of quality young men who have come through this program over the last decade," said Fitzgerald. "We've accomplished a lot of great things on the football field in the past ten years, but our most important accomplishment has been developing young men into leader-servants for the rest of their lives."
Southern Virginia University Athletic Director Scott Y. Doxey agreed with Fitzgerald that Southern Virginia football has a promising future ahead.
"A solid foundation has been built for Southern Virginia football since 2003," said Doxey. "With our acceptance as NCAA Division III provisional members, we expect that the future of Southern Virginia football will provide further opportunities for scholar-athletes to receive national recognition and have a successful athletic experience in a Latter-day Saint environment."