By Daniel Whitehead
BUENA VISTA, Va.—When a program has its most successful season in school history, naturally records are going to fall and new standards will be set for the years going forward.
The 2013 Southern Virginia University football team did just that in recording an 8-2 season and eclipsing its previous best mark of 6-5 from the 2007 squad. For the first time in program history, the team landed at No. 1 in the final United States Collegiate Athletic Association football coaches' poll, topping Ave Maria by one point with 53 first-place votes.
Although prior teams came close, no Southern Virginia team had ever earned a shutout, which the 2013 team successfully accomplished twice to end the year. With a previous best winning streak of three games, the 2013 team doubled the amount by achieving six consecutive victories to finish the season.
"What a ride it was for us as a coaching staff," said Southern Virginia head coach DeLane Fitzgerald. "There were people who thought we would not win eight games this season. It took a special group of young men to do it but we won eight games."
For the first time since the program's inception in 2003, the Knights went undefeated against teams from the state of Virginia, defeating VU-Lynchburg (33-30), Bluefield College (44-18) and twice over The Apprentice School (34-7 at home – Oct. 19; 38-6 on road – Nov.2).
The team surpassed expectations and broke multiple records on the way during the 2013 campaign.
On the offensive end, the Knights combined for 1,780 rushing yards, which ranks No. 3 in program history, in addition to 19 rushing touchdowns, third most in school history. Through the air, Southern Virginia averaged 13.94 yards per catch, second best in program history. The Knights achieved 3,230 of total offense during the season, fourth best in school history, and averaged 323 yards per game of total offense, third best in program history.
Sophomore quarterback Andy Jones averaged 7.2 yards per pass, second-best in school history for a single season, and had a role in 21 touchdowns (through the air or handing off), second-most in program history in one season. The Salt Lake City, Utah, native arrived at No. 3 in other categories during the 2013 season, including rushing touchdowns (8), pass efficiency (124.9) and total offense yards (1,588). Against VU-Lynchburg, he scored four rushing touchdowns, which ranks second-most for a single game, and his 24 points resulting from those touchdowns ranks No. 2 in the record books for one individual in a single game.
The offense was bolstered by the addition of senior newcomer Dee Sanford, whose nine pass reception touchdowns from the year is second-most in program history for a single season. Altogether, his 672 pass reception yards ranks fourth-best in the record books and his 42 receptions and 4.2 receptions per game both register at No. 5 for a single season.
On the ground, Southern Virginia was led by sophomore Nate Caldwell, who rushed for 350 yards on 87 carries for an average of four yards per carry to go with five touchdowns. Freshman Jared Watts ran for 249 yards on 55 carries, while junior Tod Workman gained 226 yards on 60 rushes. Sophomore Steven Scott earned 170 yards on 60 carries for 2.8 yards per carry and two touchdowns.
Senior offensive lineman Tyler Condiff ended his career having played in 44 games and started 36 of those, playing multiple roles that included the center, guard and tight end positions. Throughout his Southern Virginia tenure, he helped the Knights to 19 victories.
To go along with one of the top offenses the school has produced, the Southern Virginia defense also had one of its best seasons to date. Holding opponents to 14.2 points per game for the year, a program-best mark, the defensive unit also earned the No. 1 spot in tackles for loss with 98.5 and sacks with 32 on the year. The 362 yards from tackles for loss ranks second-most in program history. The team also registered 38 pass breakups on the year, fourth most in school history, and blocked six kicks, tied for second most in program history.
The Knights logged 11 interceptions on the season, sixth-most for a single season, and registered 144 yards following the interceptions, which is second-highest in school history.
Senior Dakoda Winsor led Southern Virginia in tackles during the 2013 season with 80 (41 solo, 39 assisted), which included 17.5 tackles for loss for a combined loss of 53 yards for opponents. The West Richland, Wash., native also earned 3.5 sacks on the year, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries, two pass breakups and a safety. During his career, he finished first in career fumble recoveries with seven and ranked No. 2 in assisted tackles (121), pass breakups (14) and tackles (276). Also a kickoff return specialist, he ended his career ranked No. 1 in kick return yards with 2,214.
Juniors Colter Evans and Robert Robbins were second and third on the team in tackles with respective totals of 67 and 61 on the year. Junior Matthew Gregory led the Knights in interceptions with four on the season, which ranks No. 4 in the school record books for most in a single season. Freshmen Nathan Barrett and Justin Gonzales each had two interceptions apiece. Hampered by injury during a significant portion of the season, senior Jacob Palmer totaled 29 tackles for 3.2 tackles per game and also earned a fumble recovery.
The Knights were pleased to have the services of Sanford, who turned out to be an excellent punt returner and broke multiple school records in the process. His 214 punt return yards are the most in program history for a single season as well as the highest number of punt returns at 17. Averaging a program-best 12.59 yards per punt return, he recorded Southern Virginia's second-longest punt return ever with a 57-yard return for a touchdown at Apprentice.
Freshman kicker Davis Cragun arrived at No. 1 in several categories for a single season, including PAT kicks made (30), field goals made (12) and field goal percentage (92.3 percent – 12 out of 13). His 66 points scored for the team rank fourth-most for a Southern Virginia individual in a single year.
Punter Tyler Snyder averaged 35.26 yards per punt during the season, which ranks No. 5 for one season.
Coach's Commentary – Head Coach DeLane Fitzgerald
"The turning point of the 2013 season was the middle of the 2012 season. We were up by 16 over VU-Lynchburg heading into the fourth quarter and we let them come back and beat us in those final 15 minutes. It was a very maturing experience for us that left a bad taste in our mouth and we didn't like it. We decided after that game we would do all that we could to not let games slip away from us like that.
"When I think of the reasons we were successful this season, I think of all the unselfish young men who have been a part of the program these past few years. There were 30 guys who decided to come back to our team this season. They put in their time in the weight room and their individual workouts to be leaders for this team. They gave everything they had to the university, the football program and to their teammates.
"I also think about the spring of 2013 when we were practicing in the snow and blizzard conditions. That all came back to help us and built some team character. In summary, I think about a group of young men who have put in an extraordinary amount of time to help us win games this fall.
"Our team motto this season was Family. Focus. Finish. We came together the past four months and were a family. The guys were able to focus through all the distractions and adversity they faced. Then we finished strong with six straight wins and two shutouts. You don't accomplish those things without a special team to work with."