Sewanee tapping into a turnaround attitude

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John Cleveland came to Sewanee to be a defender, but during his freshman season, some pre-practice punts caught the eye of his coach. Now, as a senior, Cleveland has gotten used to pulling double-duty.
Sewanee athletics photos

By Brian Lester

If you want a glimpse of just how tough life has been for Sewanee over the last three seasons, let senior defensive back John Cleveland tell you all about it.

He has plenty of experience dealing with defeat when you consider the Tigers won only three games over the last three seasons, enduring a 19-game losing streak at one point.

“It was brutal,” Cleveland said. “We had talent. We just couldn’t put it together. We would fight and fight and fight, but we didn’t know how to win. It makes it hard to win when you don’t know how.”

Life is different on campus this fall. With a new coach and a new attitude, the Tigers snapped a miserable 19-game losing streak in their season opener against Kenyon and are 2-2. They are bursting at the seams with confidence that they can win even more games before the season is done.

“It’s a refreshing feeling knowing we have a chance to win any game on any given week,” Cleveland said. “It’s a lot better than thinking you only had a chance to win a couple of times and knew the rest of the season you were going to get killed.”

Maybe outsiders didn’t see this turnaround coming, but first-year head coach Travis Rundle certainly did. He spent the previous six seasons as the defensive coordinator and strength and conditioning coach at Illinois Wesleyan. The Titans made the NCAA playoffs twice in that time.

Rundle also played college football. He was a four-year letter winner and two-time All-MIAA quarterback at Albion, winning three conference championships during his career.

His background serves him well as a head coach, but the thing he leans on the most from his experiences has nothing to do with stats or scores. It’s all about attitude.

“You have to line up and play the next snap to the best of your ability,” Rundle said. “The scoreboard is only right one time, and that’s at the end. Our guys have a blue-collar mentality. They put their heads down, work hard and give it their best shot. That is the way I grew up and played the game, too.”

This team began building for success in the preseason, taking the necessary steps on the field and off it.

“In preseason camp we did a lot of team bonding activities. We wanted the team chemistry to be strong because you have to be willing to fight for that guy next to you,” Rundle said. “We also set the standard about how we practice and the level we need to be at to succeed, and then get everyone to match it.”

Cleveland has been integral to the turnaround. His wealth of experience has been an asset and his success on the field is undeniable. Cleveland is a two-time All-SAA punter and has been a tremendous asset in the secondary as well.

A year ago he averaged 43.8 yards per punt and racked up 40 tackles and one interception. This season, he has 15 tackles and has picked off two passes. He’s also boomed one punt for 62 yards while splitting the duties with Ben Brown.

“John has been an awesome, as a leader and as a playmaker,” Rundle said. “He’s played a lot of college football and is a smart player. He gives great advice to the younger players and really helps them out with their production level.”

What is interesting about Cleveland is that he never planned to be a punter in college. He only did it during his senior year of high school and called that a “catch it and get rid of it type of deal.”

One day in practice his freshman year at Sewanee, he was asked to punt.

“I was messing around before practice kicking the ball, and that season we had been having our quarterback do a pooch punt. We got four blocked in one game and the coach said we need to find a punter. He saw me punt and asked if I wanted to be the punter. That was pretty much it.”

As far as playing defense goes, he just wanted to get into the game and help his team anyway he could.

“My mindset is I’m going to do everything I can to help the team,” Cleveland said. “I played corner as a sophomore and moved to safety last year. With another year at the position, and with each passing game, I feel I have become more in tune to the position.”

Yet, it’s not the stats that matter most to Cleveland. It’s the fact that Sewanee is no longer a doormat.

“Having coach Rundle is really a breath of fresh air. He’s changed everyone’s perspective and attitude,” Cleveland said. “We all have a different outlook and we’re focused on doing the little things right.”

Rundle has seen this team grow up before his eyes in just the short time he has been there. The players are committed to winning.

In the long term, Rundle wants to be able to put Sewanee in a position where it can be a conference-title contender and compete for its first playoff berth in program history.

For now, he just wants this team to put forth its best effort every week.

“We want to be competitive, get after it and give it our best shot. We want to improve every day,” Rundle said. “We’re focused on raising the bar and our goal is to be 1-0 at the end of every week.”

It beats taking the field with little hope for a win.

“It’s nice to able to play for something other than the love of the game,” Cleveland said. “It gives us all something to work for. When you don’t see hope, it’s hard to put in the work to get to where you want to be. Now that we see where we are going, that opportunities are there, it’s easier to put in the work and compete to win games.”

Defense shines for Tigers

On a day when the offense stole the show, putting up 79 points in a 79-40 win over Belhaven -- it marks the third time in the past two years East Texas Baptist has scored at least 70 -- the defense was pretty good, too, when it mattered most.

Three players recorded at least nine tackles, and Zack Biles returned an interception for a touchdown. There was Ty Parsons coming up with 14 tackles and Caleb Taylor racking up 12. CJ Johnson caused a lot of havoc with his nine tackles and 4.5 sacks, fueling an effort that led to a total of 10 sacks in all.

And then there was Biles, who returned a pick 84 yards for a score in the third quarter.

Parsons, Taylor, Biles and Johnson are among the top five tacklers on the team, with Parsons paving the way with 46. Johnson leads the team in sacks with 4.5.

The Tigers have given up 67 points this season, the majority of those coming in the game against Belhaven, although East Texas did give up just 14 points in the second half against the Blazers.

Regional notes

Landry Bray had a big day for Southwestern, helping the Pirates slip past the Wildcats 37-34. It’s the first ASC road win for the Pirates, who are 2-2 overall and 2-1 in conference play. Bray caught three passes for 116 yards and a touchdown in a game that was iced by Luke Fierst’s 36-yard field goal with 42 seconds to go. Bray is Southwestern’s leading receiver, tallying 13 catches for 260 yards and two scores.

Hardin-Simmons went on the road Saturday and dominated Howard Payne 63-3 in ASC action. Ty Hooper made his first career start for the Cowboys and he made quite an impression, completing 14 of his 17 passes for 208 yards. He threw two touchdown passes. The Cowboys rolled up 654 yards and improved to 3-0. Hooper has thrown for 275 yards and three touchdowns on the year.

An early deficit didn’t seem to bother Rhodes. The Lynx trailed Birmingham Southern 9-0 in the first half before scoring 35 consecutive points to secure a 35-9 win over the Panthers and snap a two-game losing streak. With seven tackles apiece, Zac Stuart and D’On Coofer paved the way defensively for the Lynx. Coofer is having a stellar year for Rhodes, leading the team in tackles with 23 tackles and four sacks. Stuart has been solid as well, tallying 18 tackles.

Ty Proctor threw two touchdown passes and the Millsaps defense forced three turnovers to help propel the Majors to a 17-13 comeback win over Sewanee. The Majors improve to 2-2. They are 1-1 in the conference. Proctor threw for 125 yards while Gary Roberts and Malcom Ben both picked off passes. Roberts and Ben have been two of the Majors’ top defensive players, tallying 16 and 12 tackles, respectively. Both have two interceptions apiece this year.

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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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