Perhaps you’ve heard about the 2001 Concordia University Football playoff victory over St. Ambrose University (Iowa). In order to get to that point, the Bulldogs had to overcome a significant obstacle within its own conference. In the years prior to that fall, head coach Courtney Meyer’s program had been making gains, but it really had yet to make a big splash from a national perspective.
That changed on Sept. 15, 2001. It was just four days after the 9/11 tragedy as Meyer led his Bulldogs into action on a muddy, swampy field in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The eighth-ranked Cougars of the University of Sioux Falls awaited the arrival of unranked Concordia. It turned out to be a momentous day for Meyer’s squad.
Said Meyer after the game, “As difficult as the week was for everyone in light of the tragic events in New York, we were able to focus on our game, play inspired football and save our best until the fourth quarter.”
At the time, Sioux Falls, now an NCAA Division II school, was five years removed from a national title and would go on to claim NAIA banners in 2006, 2008 and 2009. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs had a veteran and talented group coming off a 7-4 campaign in 2000. Little did people know at the time, the top two teams in the GPAC were about to meet head-to-head on that Saturday afternoon.
Recalled star linebacker Erik DeHaven, “It was a mud bowl and it was physical and it was everything you wanted that was right in the game.” This fist-fight would end in victory for Concordia, which gutted out a 17-14 upset of Sioux Falls despite committing four turnovers. The Bulldogs overcame the sloppy field conditions to pile up 421 total yards while relying heavily on a rushing attack powered by Alex Alvarez and Darin Suckstorf.
Sioux Falls took a 7-3 lead into the fourth quarter before Alvarez got rolling. The 5-foot-7, 170-pound back from Denair, Calif., galloped 73 yards for a touchdown at the 12:04 mark of the final stanza to give Concordia its first lead of the game. On the ensuing possession, Sioux Falls used 10 plays to drive the ball all the way to the Bulldog six-yard-line before being stopped on a fourth-and-one. On another trick play, Alvarez actually threw a pass to quarterback Jarrod Pimentel, who raced for another 73-yard gain that set up a short touchdown toss from Pimentel to Ross Wurdeman. The Bulldogs then held a seemingly commanding 17-7 lead with 2:40 left in the game.
The Cougars did manage to find the end zone with 1:35 remaining before Concordia ran out the clock and celebrated one of the most significant victories in program history. Even though this was just game two of the campaign, the Bulldogs had announced themselves as a clear threat to win the GPAC title and end the program’s conference championship drought that had lasted since 1981. A few days later, Concordia cracked the NAIA top 25 at No. 18.
Said Wurdeman, an All-American tight end, “Going up to Sioux Falls, that was big. We came out against Sterling in that first game and came out with a win, but I don’t think we played to our full potential. Then going up to Sioux Falls and coming out with a win that was kind of the spark that we needed for the rest of the season. Once we got past Sioux Falls we thought now it’s our table to run. Looking at the schedule of everything, they were our games to win. We just had to go out and do it.”
The final statistics showed that Concordia outgained Sioux Falls, 421-327, with more than 200 yards of offense generated in the fourth quarter. Alvarez ran 20 times for 160 yards and a score (in addition to his 73 passing yards) while Wurdeman caught seven passes for 56 yards and a touchdown. The 14 points scored by Sioux Falls would end up being its lowest point total of the entire season.
Added Meyer after the victory, “So much credit goes to Coach (Tim) Preuss (defensive coordinator), Coach (Bill) McAllister (offensive coordinator) and the other coaches for doing an outstanding job of preparing our team and then making the adjustments and calls during the game to make it happen. Everyone did their part – offense, defense and the kicking game. What a great win.”
By this point, the Bulldogs certainly had the attention of Sioux Falls. The then seventh-ranked Cougars had come into Bulldog Stadium in 2000 and left with a 43-24 defeat. Though it struggled with Concordia in the early 2000s, USF was just getting started in its run as a national powerhouse. A junior in 2001, running back Nick Kortan garnered NAIA National Player of the Year recognition in 2002. The Cougars made it all the way to the national championship game in ’01 (lost 49-27 to Georgetown of Kentucky).
To this day, the 2001 Concordia football team is arguably the best in program history. Incredibly, Meyer’s squad overcame a minus-10 turnover margin for the season. It did so with the help of a stingy defense featuring first team all-conference selections in DeHaven at linebacker and Sean Stewart at safety. Their efforts led to opponents averaging a mere 12.8 points and 285.6 yards per game. Meyer, the GPAC Coach of the Year, had been building up for a moment like this. After going 1-9 in 1997, the Bulldogs improved to 4-5 in 1998, then to 5-4 in 1999 and to 7-4 in 2000 before the major breakthrough of ’01.
Team cohesiveness certainly played a role. Said Stewart, “When I arrived my freshman year there were two radios in the locker room. We could never decide on the type of music to listen to. Offense hung out with offense. Defense hung out with defense. We were kind of at odds with each other. I couldn’t stand the offense because I couldn’t hit the quarterback. As the years continued onto my junior year those two radios turned into one. We all started listening to the same music. We became one cohesive unit and a brotherhood in Christ. It’s an honor and a privilege to wear the Concordia Bulldog jersey.”
When the dust settled, Concordia sat at 10-2 overall. It reached the quarterfinals of the NAIA playoffs (lost in a rematch at Sioux Falls) and was ranked No. 7 in the postseason coaches’ poll. The Bulldogs jetted to an 8-0 mark before being upset by Hastings, 20-16, on Nov. 3. They rebounded the next week by blowing out Mount Senario, 62-6. A 9-1 regular season earned Concordia the right to host in the first round of the playoffs. The result was a 31-26 victory over St. Ambrose.
Said Wurdeman, “I remember when we made playoffs. That was the big deal: whether or not we were going to be able to host a game. I don’t know all the details that went into that. Going up against a team like St. Ambrose, that was big to be able to play them at home. Had we played it on the road, it might have been a different story. Being able to host a game, let alone win a game at Concordia, that was a pretty special event.”
At his Concordia Hall of Fame induction speech, Stewart quipped, “It says co-champions but we were the real champions. We beat Sioux Falls.”
Indeed, the ’01 victory at Sioux Falls will be etched in the memories of those who experienced it. Without that triumph, the Bulldogs would not have celebrated a GPAC championship and likely would not have finished in the top 10 of the country as they did. Said Wurdeman, “I wish I could go back and do it all over again. Each player contributed in some fashion.”
2001 All-Conference Honorees
Coach of the Year: Courtney Meyer
First Team: K Jess Boyd, LB Erik DeHaven, S Sean Stewart, TE Ross Wurdeman.
Second Team: RB Alex Alvarez, OL Wes Amberger, WR Regan Else, DB Troy Schlueter, DL David Schmidt, RB Darin Suckstorf.
Honorable Mention: Todd Carlson, Josh Conrad, Eric Henir, Jeb Myers, Jarrod Pimentel, Anthony Porter, Rob Rathmann, Ken Ruben, Brian Samek, Josh Turner.