At a university where winning is only expected at the Goggin Ice Center, club football is redefining expectations.
The undefeated Miami University club football team travels to Salem, Virginia this weekend in pursuit of the National Club Football Association national championship against Middle Georgia State University.
“Since the start of the season, we all knew [reaching the championship] was a possibility,” sophomore safety John Zuccaro said. “We knew we could actually do it, but I don’t know how many guys actually believed it. Then the more we kept winning, and the more we came together as a team, we got closer and closer and we realized ‘hey, if we keep playing like we are, we’re going to get there.’”
Though the team is new — it was founded in 2007 — it already has a history of winning.
The RedHawks (10-0) have just three losses in the last four seasons, and two of those came to the eventual national champions. This season, they’ve been ranked No. 1 nationally since Week 3.
But what sets these players apart from others is their passion.
“It’s for the love of the game,” senior linebacker and team captain Zak Ogilbee said. “None of us are out here playing for a scholarship or playing to get noticed by somebody. We’re here because we love playing football.”
Saturday brings MU its first trip to the title game since 2012, when the RedHawks went undefeated in the regular season, but lost to Coppin State University in the championship game.
Last year, their only loss was against Oakland University, and it kept the ’Hawks too low in the rankings and out of the postseason. Oakland ended up winning it all.
The rematch came this season in Week 5, and the RedHawks routed the Grizzlies 47-9.
Sophomore running back Ty Russ had a breakout game, rushing
for 197 yards and five touchdowns on nine carries. He now leads the league in both rushing yards (864) and rushing touchdowns (13).
“Oakland is the only loss that we’ve had since I’ve been on the team, so it was obviously our biggest game. We had it circled on the calendar all year,” Zuccaro said. “It was definitely fun to go up there and blow them out.”
Oakland wasn’t Miami’s first taste of revenge this year.
MU defeated Coppin State in Week 2 — a game Ogilbee cites as the favorite memory of his four-year career with the team.
“There’s only a couple players left from that team that played Coppin State in the national championship four years ago,” Ogilbee said. “The fact that we were able to go to Baltimore — to their home field — and beat them this year, was a great accomplishment.”
But the impressive part of the win is the adversity Miami faced that week.
Team members weren’t able to book a charter bus to travel to Baltimore, so they resorted to an eight-hour carpool. After leaving Oxford at 5 a.m., they reached Baltimore just three hours before the 7 p.m. kickoff.
“We beat them 7-6 in one of the craziest games I have ever seen,” Ogilbee said. “I think that was the biggest statement victory we had this year, showing NCFA that we are here to play.”
Adversity isn’t a new theme for the ’Hawks.
Several starting players have faced season-ending injuries this season, forcing others to learn new positions to fill the void.
“It’s the 12th week of the season, you’d think everyone has a set position,” Ogilbee said. “We have a quarterback starting to learn safety, we have a safety running linebacker/receiver, we have our starting running back learning linebacker — it’s amazing knowing these guys want to win so bad, they’re gonna put aside their pride and learn a new position because we want the team to win it all. That’s why we got this far.”
It’s no surprise success comes so easily to the RedHawks — —head coach Jay Fry Sr. has a history of winning himself.
Fry Sr., a Miami graduate, played under Woody Hayes as a linebacker on the 1950 Mid-American Conference and Salad Bowl championship team and as an all-MAC guard under Ara Parseghian in 1951.
His coaching career includes stops at several college teams, a couple Canadian Football League teams and the NFL’s New York Giants.
Fry Sr.’s son, Jay Fry Jr., is also a Miami alum and serves as offensive coordinator for the club team. Fry Jr. is close with John Harbaugh, Miami graduate and Super Bowl-winning head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, and receives game advice from him.
“We are very fortunate to be coached by these guys who volunteer their time for us,” Zuccaro said. “They don’t get paid. And they’ve worked at all different levels … we’re lucky to have such good coaches with the experience that they have.”
Most of the club athletes played football at some level before coming to Miami. Ogilbee started playing football his senior year of high school, while Zuccaro started in sixth grade. Other team members played peewee football or are high school athletes of another sport who never had the chance to play football.
No matter the skill level, joining the club team gives players the opportunity to continue their athletic careers without the commitment needed for a varsity program.
Players attend practice three times per week and review film on their own time.
It also gives students new responsibilities.
Ogilbee, who serves as president, and other officers put in 20-30 hours of work per week communicating with referees, the NCFA and other teams; making sure referees are paid; booking charter buses for travel; managing team equipment and working on the schedule.
When Ogilbee joined the team his freshman year, he stuck with it and never looked back.
“It’s easily the best decision I’ve made since coming to Miami,” he said. “The guys I’ve been around, the coaches I’ve been around, the things that I’ve learned in four years of club football — it’s something I’ll never forget.”