Only Tyler Almeida and Jack LaForce have what the rest of their team wants … and they hope to help them get what they are seeking tonight.
Almeida, an Elyria High graduate, and LaForce, a Vermilion graduate, were both true freshmen the last time Mount Union won the Division III national championship with a 31-26 victory over Wisconsin-Whitewater in the 2008 Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl.
Since that victory, the Purple Raiders have faced Wisconsin-Whitewater in the last three Stagg Bowls … and have fallen to the Warhawks each time. This year the opponent will be different, but the goal is the same for the top-ranked Mount Union seniors — earn a DIII national championship ring before they graduate.
“This group of seniors is trying to get their first rings,” Lesa LaForce, Jack LaForce’s mother, said. “What pressure that is for them to go through this, because it’s unheard of to go through their entire careers at Mount Union and not get a ring.”
The University of St. Thomas (14-0) from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, defeated Wisconsin-Oshkosh 28-14 in the national semifinal to advance to tonight’s title game at Salem Stadium in Salem, Va.
St. Thomas finished the regular season as the fourth-ranked team in the nation, according to D3football.com.
Almeida has twice earned All-Ohio Athletic Conference first-team honors as the top kicker in the conference. This season he connected on 77 of 82 extra-point attempts and banged through all nine of his field goal attempts. In his career, Almeida has hit 216 of 228 extra points and 37 of 45 field goals for the Purple Raiders.
LaForce has appeared in 39 games as a linebacker/special teams performer during his Mount Union career, recording a career-high seven tackles against Wisconsin-Oshkosh last season.
Almeida and LaForce both played a part in the Purple Raiders’ 2008 Stagg Bowl victory: Almeida kicked off and LaForce played on the special teams units. The next season, 2009, both suffered blown anterior cruciate ligaments and missed the entire year.
Now, as the only fifth-year seniors on the roster, Almeida and LaForce are the lone 2012 Purple Raiders who own Stagg Bowl championship rings. They hope to change that tonight after a stirring 48-35 win over Mary Hardin-Baylor in the semifinal last weekend.
“Yeah, I already have a ring but I want this one as badly as everyone else,” Almeida said. “I’ll do whatever it takes, everything I can to help this team. Every point counts now, as you can see from last week, so I have to do my job as well as I have ever done it before.”
The pair’s relationship goes back to the summer before they strapped on their Purple Raiders helmets. They met in the summer after graduating from high school, when they both participated in a camp at their new school.
“Before the season in 2008 I met Jack. … They had a seven-on-seven camp at Mount Union in the summer and Jack long-snapped at the time,” Almeida said. “He long-snapped to me and I punted. So before college even started we had met and practiced.
“His family is such a good family. I love seeing them at every game, just as much as my parents.”
They roomed together at the 2008 Stagg Bowl.
LaForce has had an emotional career at Mount Union, one that started before he arrived on campus. The 6-0, 230-pound linebacker wears jersey number 41 to honor his nephew, Blake LaForce, who passed away from complications after battling Leukemia before Jack LaForce’s freshman year began.
Blake was a high school running back in the Dayton area who wore 41.
“I promised him, and promised his family, that I would wear his number and represent the legacy he had,” Jack LaForce said. “That’s why I wear his number and have it on my arm.”
While at Mount Union, LaForce has suffered three knee injuries. Two that ended seasons and one, this year, that put his ability to play in the playoffs in question. But he was not about to miss his final Stagg Bowl.
“I’ve been unfortunately blessed with glass knees,” he said. “My sophomore year I tore my ACL and battled back from that. I red-shirted the next year, then my junior year, Week 9, I was out of the playoffs because I tore my meniscus. Then this year, also Week 9, I tore my meniscus and my MCL.
“I made the decision to take out my meniscus and leave my MCL the way it is so I could come back and enjoy this experience. I’m not going to lie, it’s the most painful thing and every step I take I feel it. But as far as pain goes, it’s only temporary. Glory is forever.
“While I’m wearing 41 I think about what (Blake) battled through, and the knee becomes a very small thing.”
One thing is certain: Tonight’s game will mark the end of LaForce’s and Almeida’s playing careers. Almeida said there was one thing that made Mount Union special.
“Mount Union football has become my life and I really don’t remember anything other than this,” he said. “The tradition of it all. We’re expected to win, and that’s what we do. Being Division III we don’t get the top-tier Division I athletes, but the coaching staff finds those players with that kind of potential, then guide and develop it. I think that’s the biggest difference between us and any other Division III school. … We have the coach that can find the talent and develop it into incredible talent.”
LaForce, whose father, Wade, won a Stagg Bowl title in 1975 with Wittenberg, agreed with Almeida when he discussed possibly winning a ring this year compared to the ones they won as freshmen.
“I was just a freshman on special teams when I won my ring,” LaForce said. “To me, this game during my senior year would mean so much more. I have spent so much time and grown with this class of seniors, and it would mean more because we’ve been through so much together.
“Based on how much we’ve worked and the motivational drive to not be the class that walks out of here without a ring … I have one but it would not mean the same as it would if I were able to get one this year.”
“This is a new team … it is every year,” Almeida said. “I don’t think anyone is thinking about the past right now. We’re a new team with a new goal — to win it.”
- WHO: Mount Union vs. St. Thomas (Minn.)
- WHAT: Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl
- TIME: 7 o’clock
- WHERE: Salem Stadium, Salem, Va.
- TV: ESPNU
Contact Mike Perry at 329-713 or email@example.com.