|Kolton Koch's memorable play led to a memorable trip to New York.
Photo courtesy Koch family
By Adam Turer
Kolton Koch lived a lot of dreams this year.
An undefeated regular season, an outright conference championship, and his first playoff berth. But there was one play that will stand out among all the others from Monmouth's great 2016 season, and it led the offensive lineman to New York City for a postseason awards ceremony.
On December 9, Koch was celebrated as one of three finalists for the Piesman Trophy, an award given to a lineman who makes the most spectacular un-lineman-like play. Many of the nominees for the second annual Piesman were the more conventional of the unconventional plays—a blocked kick, fumble, or interception return; a handoff or screen pass to an eligible tackle. Koch's stood out even more, as he was the only nominee to complete a pass.
"One of the greatest freaking things we've ever seen on a football field," was how Ryan Nanni, chairman of the Piesman Trust, described the play on SBNation.
The play almost instantly went viral once it was uploaded online. Koch was one of four D-III players who made this year's Piesman ballot, along with Hardin-Simmons' Bryant Buzzard, Mary Hardin-Baylor's Haston Adams (two plays), and St. Scholastica's Harry Griffin.
"The whole Piesman deal is throwing a bone and giving recognition to guys who don't ever get recognized for much," said the man responsible for creating the play, Monmouth offensive coordinator Joe Freitag. "To have a guy from Monmouth College up there was like the ultimate underdog story. I think they loved it."
The Piesman is one of the few national awards open to players from all NCAA divisions. Still, it was remarkable to see a Division III player on stage in New York City as one of the three finalists.
"The great part about the Piesman is it celebrates a player in a moment, so even if the school or stage is smaller, there's nothing small (literally and figuratively) about a lineman who never gets the glory of making a play with the ball doing just that," said SBNation's Dan Rubenstein, who co-hosted the ceremony with Nanni. "It doesn't matter where you play--we've always wanted to honor creativity, improvisation, awareness, and unexpected glory. Kolton's play was a perfect example of all of these qualities, and we couldn't be happier to honor him and Monmouth as a finalist."
The play: after a short Knox punt set Monmouth up with a short field in the closing minutes of the first quarter, it was Koch's time to shine. Lined up at right guard with the ball on the Knox 43, Koch peeled back around and took the handoff from quarterback Tanner Matlick. Rolling to his left, the southpaw launched a spiral downfield. Wide receiver Yansay Williams leaped up to haul in the underthrown ball at the 10-yard line. Two plays later, the Scots were in the end zone, increasing their lead to 37-0.
"I was really just trying to complete the pass. I didn't want to overthrow him and I didn't want to underthrow him," said Koch. "When I got the handoff, Yansay was so wide open that I just tried to get it to him as fast as I could and just throw a catchable ball."
Koch was supposed to throw a pass earlier in the season, on a two-point conversion. But, a teammate jumped early, the team was penalized, and the play was called off before Koch had a chance to attempt the throw. Still, that would have been a five-yard pass into the flat. Also, that was a play that Freitag borrowed from something he'd seen Arkansas run in the past. The play that led the Monmouth coach and player, along with Koch's parents, to New York was a true original.
"We really didn't steal it from anybody. Football coaches sit around their office, drink coffee, and draw up plays. That's what happened, honestly," said Freitag. "It makes coaching a lot easier when you have a group of guys who are so talented that you can do stuff like that. Anytime you do stuff like that, it gives everybody a little bit of juice in practice."
Koch is a unique talent for an offensive lineman. In high school, he was the point guard on his basketball team before giving up that sport to wrestle as a senior and make it to state. Before practices at Monmouth, he often warmed up with the quarterbacks, competing with them to see who could land a pass in a trash can or nail an upright.
"Kolton is the most athletic offensive lineman I've ever coached. He's a senior, he's more than deserving, let's let him have a shot at it," said Freitag. "We just said to heck with it, let's just let it rip. Kolton made a nice throw. Our receiver made an incredible catch."
But before the Scots ran the play against Knox, there was little reason to think that the play would work. Koch ran the play twice in practice that week, and both of his pass attempts were well off the mark.
"We only ran it twice and I absolutely threw two ducks," said Koch. "I kept on nagging [Coach Freitag], telling him I can throw a better ball. My teammates all told me just to run it, but I was going to throw it no matter what."
Freitag wanted to call the play the series before, but head coach Chad Braun vetoed him. The next series, Koch delivered the pass that earned him his first airplane ride and first trip to New York.
"I was relieved after we ran it," said Koch. "Coach Freitag kept hinting that we were going to run it soon. I had to think about it every time I came off. Having that on your mind was kind of tricky. My teammates gave me a little bit of crap, but we had fun with it."
The fact that the play was one of many highlights this year for the Scots made it that much sweeter.
"We had that much chemistry and confidence that we can do that kind of stuff," said Koch. "Being on a 10-0 team and winning the way we did all year, it was really fun. It was a great season and a great way to end your career."
The Kochs and Freitag were put up in a New York City hotel. Koch and the other two finalists, Pitt's Brian O'Neill and Oklahoma State's Vincent Taylor, spent the day together, being shepherded through New York experiences like riding the subway and having a pizza lunch while sharing stories about their different college football experiences. Visiting the 9/11 Memorial left a lasting impact on Koch and Freitag.
When the votes were tallied, O'Neill edged Koch for the trophy by a single vote. Still, the small-town kid from Chebanse, Illinois is proud to have represented his small school of Monmouth College on the big stage.
"I was just happy to be there. It would have been awesome to get that trophy, because the trophy's pretty sweet. But the whole experience was amazing, so I can't be upset about a trip to New York," said Koch. "Being able to stand next to those guys and be up for the Piesman was awesome. It was just an overall great experience and a once in a lifetime type of thing."
Oh, and in case you were wondering, Koch's favorite pie is pumpkin, with whipped cream.