|Zach VanFaussien hurdles a Concordia-Chicago defender in an early-season game.
Kalamazoo athletics photo by Kimberly Moss
By Brian Lester
Kalamazoo was 1-9 a year ago, and that wasn’t particularly unusual. The Hornets lost all of their conference games in the MIAA and entered this season picked to finish sixth out of seven teams. Only league newcomer Finlandia was picked below them.
Add in the fact that Kalamazoo has won just seven games in the previous three seasons, including just two in conference play, and there was little reason to expect anything but more of the same from the Hornets in 2018.
But with three weeks to play in the regular season, the Hornets have exceeded expectations. Off to a 7-0 start for the first time since 1962 and assured of a winning season for the first time since 2013, life is looking pretty good for Kalamazoo.
|Senior linebacker Jakob Frederick has a team-high 61 tackles, six and a half of them tackles for loss.
Kalamazoo photo by Kimberly Moss
“I’m thrilled about how things are going,” Hornets head coach Jamie Zorbo said. “It’s great to see us having success. We couldn’t have asked for a better way for this season to go.”
Senior quarterback Zach VanFaussien echoes those thoughts.
It’s been a lot of fun to be a part of it, especially with this being my senior year,” VanFaussien said. “We haven’t had much success the past three years. It’s fun to be on a team that is doing great things and making history.”
The veteran quarterback is in the midst of his best season on a personal level, too, throwing for 1,279 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Prior to this season, he had never thrown for more than 453 yards in a year. He has thrown for 10 more touchdowns than he had in his previous three seasons combined.
He came into this season believing things could be different. His teammates did as well. Never mind that there are only seven seniors on the roster.
“There was definitely something that felt different in spring ball and in the offseason,” VanFaussien said. “A lot of guys on this team were thinking it’s a new team and a new year. We’re going to set out and prove that’s true. That we are different.”
There's no question things are different. A point has been proven. The Hornets opened the year with a 24-7 win over Oberlin and haven’t looked back.
There have been a couple of close calls along the way, the 31-30 win over Adrian being one of them. The other was a 20-19 victory over Albion. This past week, Kalamazoo edged Alma 17-10 after a slow start that saw the teams go into the locker room tied at 3-3.
“There might be a play where the opponent thinks it has us and someone steps up and busts their tail and makes a play that makes a difference,” VanFaussien said. “We believe in each other. We trust in each other. We know that whoever is on the field for us is going to do great things.”
Zorbo played at Kalamazoo and was a four-year letterwinner for the Hornets. So this success means a little bit more to him. He’s enjoyed watching his team see the time and effort it has put into this season materialize into something special.
“It’s very gratifying,” Zorbo said. “All of our players and all of our coaches have worked really hard, and it’s nice to see the hard work paying off. “We’re asking the right things from our players and we have a pretty good culture within our program that is going to set up our guys for success on and off the field.”
When you ask Zorbo what has changed this season, ask him to pinpoint factors that have sparked a turnaround, he mentions execution and the fact that the players on this team are close. He also credits the leadership of the older players.
“Guys are being put into a position to make plays and they are making them,” Zorbo said. “I think our cohesiveness has been a very positive change. We’re a tighter group. Our returning players have done a great job of bringing the younger guys along and taking them under their wing.”
VanFaussien said it hasn’t hurt that the team has bought in to what the coaching staff is preaching.
“We’re playing with effort, we have the right mentality and we have good leaders on the team. And everyone has bought in. It’s made a big difference,” VanFaussien said. “We’re a tight-knit group, too. We’re not done yet, but knowing we had a positive impact on this program and are leaving it better than we found it means a lot.”
There are bigger games ahead, and realistically, the most challenging stretch of the schedule is staring this Hornets team right in the eyes. Two of those games are on the road.
In the pollsters' eyes
Kalamazoo received its first-ever point in the D3football.com Top 25, meaning it finished 25th on one of the 25 voters' ballots. Here's what a Top 25 voter would see when looking at the Hornets' resume:
|Sept. 1||Oberlin (1-6)||W, 42-7|
|Sept. 8||Greenville (2-5)||W, 42-7|
|Sept. 15||at Rockford (2-5)||W, 23-7|
|Sept. 29||Adrian (3-4)||W, 31-30|
|Oct. 6||at Finlandia (0-7)||W, 56-7|
|Oct. 13||at Albion (5-2)||W, 20-19|
|Oct. 20||Alma (1-6)||W, 17-10|
|Oct. 27||at Olivet (4-3)|
|Nov. 3||at Hope (5-2)|
|Nov. 10||Trine (7-0)|
Olivet is up first on Saturday.
The Comets are 4-3 overall and 2-2 in the conference.
Then comes Hope, which is 5-2 overall and 3-1 in the MIAA.
The Hornets close the year at home against conference favorite Trine, which is also 7-0 and 4-0 in the league. The Thunder is ranked No. 16 in the nation in the D3football.com poll.
Although the schedule doesn’t get any easier, the Hornets are staying the course.
“We just have to work on the best version of a football team that we can be each and every week,” Zorbo said. “We’ve been stressing focusing on the process and doing things that we do week in and week out, only do them a little bit better than the week before. We just have to continue doing the same things we’ve done and just be better at it.”
The doubters are out there. VanFaussien knows it. He doesn't care.
“Our hardest games are ahead, but we’ve shown we can play and compete with good teams,” VanFaussien said. “We know we’re still looked at as the underdog and we’re using it as motivation and will play with a chip on our shoulder. We are out to prove something to everyone watching us.”
No matter how the remainder of the season plays out, the ride has been special and the program is on the rise.
“It’s definitely been fun to flip the script and the narrative on Kalamazoo college football,” VanFaussien said. “We don’t think this is going to be a blip on the radar. We feel like the program is heading in the right direction. That better things are in the future for it.”