Along with being a top-ranked team overall, APU has experienced success on all sides of the ball this year largely, due to the seniors who have stepped up their game.
Particularly on the defensive side, the seniors have made their mark this season, accumulating 50 sacks, 23 interceptions and 15 forced fumbles. Along with performing at a high level, the seniors have created an influence on the team that has garnered the attention of both coaches and teammates.
Head coach Victor Santa Cruz has not only noticed, but has worked to foster this attitude among the rest of the team.
“They’re setting the tone and passing the baton of culture to our younger guys,” Santa Cruz said. “It’s their defense as much as it is the school’s defense and there is a pride about every single rep we have taken. That is led by the seniors, but it’s deep even into the true freshmen.”
Santa Cruz explained the most tactical goal the defense has focused on throughout this season was to get the ball back.
“On defense, you want to stop the run, stop the pass. Ultimately, you’re trying to get the ball back, and I think it’s showed up this year that you get what you emphasize,” Santa Cruz said. “The way we focus on any kind of game, the attitude going into it coming out of the tunnel, we always believe it’s like a heavyweight fight. When that bell rings, when we’re coming out of that tunnel, we’re swinging and we want to have that mentality that this is a competition, that we need to make sure that we’re getting out there and being the most physical team we can be.”
With this attitude, the Cougars have been able to exhibit a dominance that has been recognized as the top defense in the GNAC.
One of the members of this defense, senior free safety Hunter Malberg, said the recipe behind the Cougars’ success this season is hard work.
“Our defensive line is absolutely phenomenal. These guys are the reason why our defense runs the way it does. It’s starts up front, they shut down the run, then it goes to the secondary and we take down the pass and it’s a wrap,” Malberg said.
The senior players find more meaning in their work than scoreboards and yard gains. There is a sense of brotherhood that sustains the team and unites them to push forward toward victory.
“If I had to give one reason [why this season is different], I would just say the overall camaraderie of the team, because in past years we may not have been as close knit of a group as we should have been,” senior defensive lineman Billy Tanuvasa said. “I’d go to battle with these guys any day. I think that’s been a huge factor in our success. You’ve got to love the guys next to you.”
Senior cornerback C.J. Broussard said the foundation of the team’s success is the mutual trust the players have built.
“I think after being with guys long enough, you kind of build a trust with everyone. Whether it’s an offensive player or a defensive player, I know that I have a great relationship with every guy on this team, specifically the senior class. I can trust them to have my back and they can trust me to have theirs,” Broussard said.
Along with staying close, the defense has maintained a no-quit attitude all year long.
“Go one-and-zero every week, which is regardless of how big the game is, regardless of who we’re facing. You treat them like they’re a nameless, faceless opponent and you’ve got to go out and do what you’ve got to do. The results are there and I think that speaks for itself,” Tanuvasa said.
With senior players and leaders such as Tyree Davis, Sam Flemming, Jonathan Thropay, Tanuvasa, Broussard and Malberg taking the reins in their respective positions, they have set a new tone for the Cougars.
The Cougars finished the regular season 9-2, and will play against Sioux Falls in South Dakota on Nov. 19. This will be the first NCAA playoff game in school history.