The Ravens football team of Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, will participate in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) National Football Championship game for the first time since football was introduced to the school nearly a century ago. The Ravens and at least 1,000 fans from the school will travel to Daytona Stadium in Daytona Beach, Florida, for the game against the Morningside Mustangs of Sioux City, Iowa, Dec. 15. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN3 (ESPN.com/watch/).
“We’re all very excited and are looking forward to a great game,” said Steve Minnis, Benedictine’s president and a graduate of the school. Noting the devotion to the Blessed Mother by both the school and some of the key players and the remarkable success the team has had in recent years, he added, “We like to call this Mary’s team.”
Benedictine was founded by two Benedictine monks as a boarding school in 1858. It is located alongside St. Benedict’s Abbey, a traditional community of monks who serve as both teachers and administrators. Nearly 2,000 students attend the college today, studying more than 40 majors.
The school’s football program began in the 1920s, Minnis said, and after a 12-year hiatus, it was re-introduced in 1974. The team’s head coach since 1979 has been Larry Wilcox, also a Benedictine College graduate. Wilcox is the second-winningest active head coach in the NAIA and was inducted into the NAIA Hall of Fame in 2016.
The Ravens have fielded some strong teams under Wilcox’s leadership; twice they’ve made it to the semifinals, and for the first time in 2018, they are headed to a championship.
John Wood, whose wife teaches at Benedictine and who has been a longtime fan of the team, said, “Coach Wilcox has been producing some good teams for the past 10 or 15 years. Our offense this year is one of the best in its league in the nation.”
The Morningside Mustangs are favored to win, however, as they are ranked first nationally versus seventh for the Ravens. Wilcox said, “We need to play our best if we’re going to defeat the Mustangs. They have an explosive offense and an excellent defense. But after 18 weeks of practice, I think we’re ready.”
The Ravens are 13-1 for the season. Some of the Ravens’ outstanding players, Wilcox noted, include quarterback Shaefer Schuetz, wide receiver Aaron Jackson and running back Marquis Stewart. As much as the coach and his staff want to see a win Saturday, Wood said, “What is most important to them is that they raise up good gentlemen. In this area, they’ve been most successful; some of his players have become real leaders in society.”
The Ravens’ success has also electrified the local community, Wood continued: “Everyone’s talking about it.”
Schuetz is grateful for the opportunity to play on behalf of the school, community and Wilcox. “The coach revived the school’s football program after it had been stopped,” Schuetz said of Wilcox. “I feel like I’m playing for a living legend, which makes the trip all the more special.”
Prayers by the Yard
Minnis stressed the spiritual component in the team’s success. For the past decade, he’s led the students in a Wednesday morning Rosary, seeking God’s blessing on the college and its initiatives. For the past two years, a significant number of those who come to pray have been members of the football team. They started coming at the invitation of Charlie Gartenmayer, the team’s defensive coordinator and the school’s athletic director.
As Gartenmayer recalled, “I asked one player to come. He came and asked another to join him. Another came, then another, and now we have 12 to 15 praying the Rosary weekly.”
He noted that during the past two years the team had only lost four games by a total of 20 points.
The school’s athletes also engage in Bible studies, attend Mass and go to adoration. Minnis gave the example of the team’s quarterback, Schuetz, a non-Catholic who is nonetheless committed to praying the Rosary and adoration. The day before Thanksgiving, a Wednesday, was a non-school day, and Minnis did not intend to lead the on-campus Rosary. Schuetz was among the first texting him, “Are we going to have the Rosary today?” He opted to come in on his day off to lead the students.
Schuetz, Minnis continued, has two “rituals” before a big game: mowing the lawn and spending time in adoration. When the team travels to Florida, Minnis said, “We’re going to find a patch of grass for him to mow, and we’re going to set up a chapel in a hotel room so he can do adoration.”
Schuetz said he began mowing lawns before games because that’s what he did the day before he was first tapped to be a starter quarterback; he was first introduced to adoration at Benedictine and decided, “What better way can you spend a Friday night than in adoration before the Lord?”
Mary’s Fan Club
Minnis has other reasons for calling the Ravens football team “Mary’s Team.” The school was consecrated to the Blessed Mother five years ago, and it was re-consecrated this year. He believes the team’s success is a reflection of her favor on the school.
Wood related another incident related to his daily 3pm practice of saying the Memorare prayer (“Remember, O most gracious Virgin Mary …), a practice which also takes place on Benedictine’s campus. Wood sets an alarm on his watch as a reminder. When the Ravens team was battling an opponent in their first playoff game, the alarm went off. As Wood began the prayer while sitting in the stands, the opposing team fumbled the ball at a critical moment, and the Ravens won.
Two weeks later, Wood was watching the semifinal game in Salina, Kansas. As the Ravens scored the winning touchdown, he glanced across the street and noticed he was looking at St. Mary Queen of the Universe Church.
Minnis said, “While some may say all this is a coincidence, I say there are no coincidences with God. Mary is watching over us.”
Win or lose, Gartenmayer hopes the team will “enjoy the experience and end the season with friendships with teammates that will last a lifetime. Our motto is, ‘We arrive as strangers, grow as friends and leave as one.’”
Schuetz added, “This is the last game of the season, and we’re trying to cap off a great year by bringing home a national title. Our guys have done a fantastic job in coming back from adversity in game after game; I hope we’ll show the same fight and scrappiness we have shown since the season began.”
Jim Graves writes from Newport Beach, California.