Minnesota State-Mankato falls in Division II championship

Published 3:20 am Monday, December 22, 2014

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Minnesota State advanced farther this season than any team in school history, the Mavericks turning back every opponent that stepped onto the field with them.

They finally met their match Saturday.

Chris Bonner threw for 191 yards and a touchdown, Cameron McDondle scampered for 113 yards and Colorado State-Pueblo relied on some stingy defense to knock off the Mavericks 13-0 in the Division II national championship game.

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“We didn’t come into the game satisfied. We came in to compete. We came in to win,” said Minnesota State coach Todd Hoffner, who returned to the sideline this year after a two-year hiatus.

“You get 60 minutes. You get one chance to compete,” Hoffner said, “and if you don’t get it done, you have a result like you had today.”

Ricky Lloyd and Nick Pieruccini shared quarterback duties for the Mavericks (14-1), though neither of them was particularly effective. Running back Connor Thomas, who had more than 1,300 yards rushing this season, was held to just 25 yards on 10 carries.

The result was the first shutout in the Division II title game since 1997.

“That was one of the best defenses we’ve seen,” Lloyd said. “We just couldn’t get on a roll. We couldn’t get any drives sustained and when you can’t get drives sustained, it’s tough to score.”

The victory capped a remarkable rebuilding job by ThunderWolves coach John Wristen, who played quarterback for the school when it was known as Southern Colorado in the early 1980s.

The program was disbanded along with several others in cost-cutting moves in 1985, and Wristen was brought on board in 2007 to revive it. Pueblo won four games the following year and simply kept improving, going unbeaten in the regular season the three previous seasons.

Each of those years ended in playoff disappointment, though. But after losing its only game to Fort Lewis earlier this season, Pueblo (14-1) made sure to finish things off this time.

“Our defense was outstanding. Our offense made the plays they needed to,” Wristen said. “I was convinced if we understood the process, played as hard as you can and play for each other — and not being perfect, but fixing your mistakes — we had a chance to be here.”

The Division II title game moved this year from its longtime home in Florence, Alabama to Sporting Park, the $200 million soccer-specific home of MLS club Sporting Kansas City — which looked just fine dressed as a football stadium for the first time.

As expected, two of the nation’s best defenses took center stage early. Neither team crossed midfield until late in the first quarter, and the game was still scoreless midway through the second.

Both teams squandered chances, though. O’Donnell missed right on a 44-yard field-goal attempt, and Minnesota State’s Alden Haffar had his 27-yard attempt blocked.

O’Donnell finally broke the deadlock with a 27-yard field goal late in the half.

Minnesota State, which blew out Concord 47-13 in the semifinals, proceeded to go three-and-out for the second time in the half. Pueblo took advantage of good field position and briskly marched 69 yards, taking a 10-0 lead on Bonner’s 18-yard fade pass to Paul Browning.

O’Donnell added a 24-yard field goal early in the second half to extend the ThunderWolves’ lead, and the same defense that shined in 10-7 semifinal win over West Georgia came through again.

“I’m not mad or disappointed at the season. We made it farther than this program ever has,” Minnesota State cornerback Justin Otto said. “It’s something to be proud of. But at the same time, I think it’s going to motivate us. … Next time, hopefully we can bring it home.”