PUEBLO, Colo. (AP) For CSU-Pueblo coach John Wristen, who played quarterback for the team from 1980-1983 and who rebuilt the program in 2007 after over two decades without football, Saturday's Division II semifinal game was the culmination of half a lifetime of hard work.
Now that his team narrowly edged No. 25 West Georgia 10-7 to advance to the first NCAA Division II championship in school history, the town, and the team Wristen has dedicated his professional life to, are reaping the rewards.
''They coolest part is the aftermath, seeing the kids celebrate and everyone come together. That made it worth all the blood, sweat, and tears,'' Wristen said after the game. ''It means more to see those smiles on everybody in the stands than it does anything personally for me.''
That doesn't mean anything came easy for the Thunderwolves against West Georgia (12-3). After a 68-yard, 14-play drive that ended in a field goal, CSU-Pueblo (13-1) was held quiet for the rest of the first half, managing only 42 more yards and zero points.
With their offense struggling, CSU-Pueblo's defense rose to the occasion. Led by two-time All-American defensive end Darius Allen, the Thunderwolves were able to keep West Georgia from pulling away by hounding quarterback Dallas Dickey in the pocket.
The Thunderwolves finished with six sacks on the evening.
''I think our defensive front is as good as anybody's in the country, our secondary is as good as anybody's in the country,'' said Wristen. ''Our outside linebackers played with great passion, and our inside linebackers get us in the right checks. They worked as a great unit today.''
Still, a 30-yard touchdown pass from Dickey to junior Shaq Hill gave West Georgia the lead, and their defense looked to be more than a match for the Thunderwolves sputtering offense.
Locked in a 7-3 stalemate, the Thunderwolves opted for a bit of trickery. Stalled at West Georgia's 38-yard-line with just under 10 minutes to go in the game, CSU-Pueblo faked a reverse and pitched the ball back to senior quarterback Chris Bonner, who found tight end Zach Boyd for the go-ahead touchdown.
''We've been practicing that play since the middle of September,'' said Wristen. ''Darren Wilkinson (CSU-Pueblo's offensive coordinator) called it, he suggested it, and we executed. And Chris threw a perfect pass to a wide-open guy.''
''That's what it's been like every time in practice, so that's what I was expecting,'' added Bonner. ''I just didn't want to overthrow him.''
West Georgia wasn't quite done however. Taking to the air, Dickey marched his squad down into the red-zone. But like most of evening, West Georgia couldn't finish off a promising drive, as CSU-Pueblo cornerback LaVon Floyd intercepted Dickey's pass in the end-zone, ending the last serious threat West Georgia would mount.
West Georgia finished 0-for-3 in the red-zone, including two missed field goals - one blocked, the other bounced off the right upright.
''When you look at it statistically for us, it's disappointing to have 21 first downs and 366 yards, dominate the time of possession the way we did, dominate the game statistically like we did, and only score seven points,'' said West Georgia head coach Will Hall. ''Hats off to them. We've got to move forward and get better.''
Whatever the final statistics say, the only one that matters at the end of the night is the final score - and the fact that CSU-Pueblo is one step away from the ultimate goal.
''Honestly, it's just big for the team,'' said Allen. ''It feels like destiny.''
CSU-Pueblo will take on undefeated Minnesota State Mankato (14-0) in the championship game Saturday, Dec. 20 in Kansas City, Kansas at Sporting Park.