From signal-caller to ball-hawker

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Southwestern's first season restarting the program was the first time a team of his had ever lost back-to-back games. Still, he stuck with it.
Southwestern athletics photos

It’s easy to forget Matt Gillen was ever a quarterback.

Now in his senior season at Southwestern, the standout wide receiver for the Pirates continues to turn in stellar performances and is well on his way to being named a first-team All-SCAC selection for the fourth consecutive year.

But once upon a time he was a quarterback.

“I played it in high school, but when I got here I was moved to receiver,” Gillen said. “I feel like every year I’ve made progress, and I go out every week trying to make big plays for the team.”

Gillen said he took a shot at playing receiver in high school when he made the jump to varsity but that was only to get some playing time.

Making that position switch in high school hardly compares to doing it at the college level.

“It was definitely a challenge,” Gillen said. “I’ve learned a lot about myself and a lot about the game playing receiver. I knew I could be good at receiver if I worked at it, and I’m happy with how far I’ve come.”

Gillen has been nothing short of tremendous as a threat in the passing game for the Pirates, who are 4-3 and riding the high of being on top of the SCAC with a 3-0 record.

The native of Texas leads Southwestern in receptions (52) and yards (795). The ambidextrous football star is also the leader in touchdown catches with six.

It appears he has taken his game to another level as of late, having racked up 135 or more receiving yards in five consecutive games, including 146 in Southwestern’s 42-38 win over Texas Lutheran on Saturday.

But no one should be surprised by the success. Gillen has a high football IQ and prides himself on his understanding of the game. Having a background as a quarterback doesn’t hurt his cause either.

“I think it really helps with my mindset when I’m watching film,” Gillen said. “I’m able to do a good job of my pre-snap reads of the defense because I played quarterback and know when to make a move to get open.”

Speaking of making moves, the Pirates have made some big ones this season. A doormat when football started back up in 2013 -- Southwestern won a combined three games the last three years -- the Pirates are now anything but pushovers.

“Everyone is playing on another level,” Gillen said. “This success is the product of all of the work we have put in over the last four years. “The chemistry we have and the maturity of our players has made a big difference.”

Rewind to three years ago, though, and it’s hard to envision success. Southwestern went 63 years without a program before breathing new life into it in 2013, and Gillen wasn’t sure what the future held for him or the team when signed on to play with the Pirates.

“I wasn’t sure what to expect,” Gillen said. “But I was happy to accept the challenge of playing for a new program. It’s been fun to be a part of it and to watch us grow as a team.”

Often, players will walk away when the going gets tough, bolting for another school. Gillen never considered leaving, even when the Pirates stumbled through a 0-10 season in 2013.

“I had never lost back-to-back games until that season,” Gillen said. “It was tough. There were times where the [losing] got to me, but it’s funny, that season was one of my most enjoyable. I think not having the pressure of being expected to win helped. I could just go out and play.”

Those tough moments are history now. Gillen is having another great season and his teammates are thriving as well.

The Pirates just handed Texas Lutheran its first SCAC loss in program history, ending a streak of 11 consecutive wins for the Bulldogs. The win also marked just the second time in school history that Southwestern has topped the Bulldogs. The Pirates last beat TLU in 1940 when they came away with a 27-9 win.

Southwestern still has three games remaining and is eager to finish off its run to an SCAC title.

Gillen is doing his part to help lead the way, providing leadership by example and striving to make himself a better player every day.

“We can’t look past anyone,” Gillen said. “We are trying to go 1-0 every week. If we do that, we can win the conference.”

As for the experience of playing at Southwestern, it’s one Gillen is forever thankful for.

“As a kid, I dreamed of playing college football,” Gillen said. “It’s a great feeling getting to chase that dream. I’m having fun. My family and friends support me, and I have great teammates.”

Thompson shines in first career start

Miles Thompson had never started a game at quarterback for Hendrix prior to Saturday. With starter Seth Peters battling pneumonia, Thompson got the nod and ended up looking like a player who has been a starter all along in the Warriors’ 52-28 win over Chicago.

The freshman signal-caller threw for 455 yards and three touchdowns, with one scoring strike finding the hands of Nate Hodapp, who caught a school-record 16 passes for 156 yards.

Thompson, the SAA Offensive Player of the Week, completed 32 of his 41 passes as the Warriors rolled up 760 yards, the most in school history. He has played in five games in all this year, rolling up 651 yards and six touchdowns. Peters has thrown for nearly 2,000 yards this season in six starts.

Thompson was a star in high school in Texas, earning all-state honors at First Baptist Academy of Dallas. He threw for more than 2,800 yards his senior year.

His effort Saturday helped Hendrix put up 40 or more points for the fifth time this season. The Warriors have scored 50-plus twice.

Special performance

Trinity took advantage of tremendous play on special teams to take down Austin 38-17 and win its first SCAC game of the season.

Jordan Williams returned a pair of punts for touchdowns and Colby Doyal drilled a 47-yard field goal as the Tigers snapped a three-game losing streak. The Tigers, who scored a season-high in points, have won their last four meetings against the Kangaroos.

Doyal’s field goal was the longest of his career and he has connected on five of his nine attempts this season, hitting two from 40-plus yards out.

Williams also plays defensive back for Trinity and has racked up two tackles. As a team, the Tigers were solid defensively Saturday, giving up a season-low 253 yards, including only 68 through the air, helping Trinity (3-4, 1-2) win its first road game of the season.

Turnaround season continues for Lobos

The battle of Interstate 20 belongs to Sul Ross State. The Lobos rallied from a 21-15 deficit to knock off McMurry 35-21 in an ASC rivalry game. It marks the third consecutive win for the Lobos, who improved to 4-3 overall and 2-1 in the conference.

Byron Jones caught two touchdown passes, including the go-ahead score on a 33-yard scoring strike from James Davis early in the fourth quarter. Jones made a total of three catches in the win, with two of those grabs going for touchdowns.

Sul Ross has scored 21 or more points in its last three games, fueling an impressive turnaround that has helped the Lobos overcome a 1-3 start. Sul Ross State also has one more win than it did all of last year and is on the verge of its best season since 2012 when it finished 5-5.

Only a sophomore, Jones has played a pivotal role in the current stretch of success, leading the team in receiving. He has made 30 catches for 489 yards and has caught four touchdown passes.

Sideline notes

Jack Ingalls rang up 14 tackles, pushing his season total to 41, and forced a fumble as Rhodes topped Birmingham-Southern 50-16 in SAA play. The Lynx trailed 7-0 after one quarter and were ahead 14-10 at halftime before dominating the second half. Ingalls and the Lynx held the Panthers to 283 yards of offense and forced three turnovers.

Zach Galindo threw for a career-best 422 yards but couldn’t prevent Texas Lutheran from seeing its 11-game SCAC win streak end in a 42-38 loss to Southwestern. Marquis Barrolle became the school’s all-time leading rusher in the loss, pushing his career total to 3,550. The record, held by Royce Johnson, had stood since 1972.

Jaquan Hemphill scored the go-ahead touchdown for Hardin-Simmons on Saturday in its showdown against Mary Hardin-Baylor. Hemphill scored on a one-yard run early in the third quarter to give the Cowboys a 15-10 lead in this battle of nationally ranked teams. Carson Embry scored the game-winning touchdown on a pass from Blake Jackson as third-ranked UMHB went on to win 20-15 and improve to 7-0 overall and to 4-0 in the ASC.

If you have a great story idea or notable accomplishments that deserve a mention in this column, feel free to reach out to me at brian.lester@d3sports.com. You can also follow on Twitter @BLester1993

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Brian Lester

Brian Lester is a reporter in Florida. He has 14 years of experience at newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio, spending 10 at The Courier in Findlay, Ohio. Lester also writes an Around the Region column for D3hoops.com and wrote Around the Great Lakes for D3football.com from 2012-14. He is a graduate of Eastern Illinois.

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