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ISSUE 119 VOL 19 PUBLISHED 5/5/2006

Turning Florida black and gold

By Joel Stjernholm
Staff Writer

Friday, May 5, 2006

When St. Olaf football head coach Chris Meidt held his first team meeting in the spring of 2002, the room was all but empty. In a conference where the best teams contain around 100 athletes, with talented players three or even four deep at most positions, Meidt did not even have a second team.

“We had about thirty-five or thirty-six guys at our first meeting,” said the fifth-year head coach. “We only had thirty at the second meeting. A few of the guys realized that we would have standards and discipline, and decided that wasn’t what they signed up for.”

Meidt and his coaching staff wasted little time building their program. In addition to the implementation of a rigorous off-season training regimen, designed to improve players already in the program, Meidt and his staff also developed an innovative approach to recruiting.

While maintaining all of their recruiting efforts in the Midwest, the coaching staff also extended their reach to include several promising athletes from the state of Florida.

For St. Olaf football coaches, a typical “off-season” day includes office work from at 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. followed by “in-home” recruiting visits or telephone calls to prospective players until 10 p.m. They only break for dinner.

“[Recruiting success] is not an accident … It’s a lot of hard work,” Meidt said.

They have been rewarded for their efforts. In addition to garnering in-state talents such as Eric Yuen ’08 (Apple Valley, Minn.), Preston St. John ’08 (Farmington), and captains James Bechdol ’08 (Long Lake) and Thomas Warfield ’07 (Minneapolis), the Oles managed to entice several Floridians to commit to the black and gold.

Blake Hamel ’08, Horace Gant ’08, Deontae Hutchins ’08, Trey Williams ’06 and Jeremy Thomas ’07, all of whom hail from the Sunshine State, filled starting roles for the Oles last season, with Gant garnering All-MIAC honors. Hamel was recently selected to captain the 2006 Ole football squad.

Why St. Olaf?

At first, the idea of traveling from Florida to Minnesota to play football seems counterintuitive. Why would anyone leave beautiful, sunny Florida to attend college and play football in the state of hockey?

“There’s nothing like this in Florida,” said Thomas, an Orlando native. “[Division] I-AA is the smallest they have in Florida. At that level, it’s all about the football, nothing else.”

Meidt echoed Thomas’ sentiments about the state of college football in Florida.

“There are no DIII Christian colleges in Florida, so if you’re looking for that you have to go out of state anyway, whether you go to Tennessee or Minnesota.”

Consistent with the theme of balance epitomized by DIII athletics, players credit the values emphasized in the St. Olaf football program, a three-fold set of values that includes achievement in the classroom, success on the football field and integrity in personal life, as being influential in their college decision.

“We call it the three A’s,” Meidt said. “Academics, athletics and atmosphere.”

Several players were attracted to St. Olaf for the mixture of academics and athletics that makes the college stand out amongs Division III schools.

When asked why he chose St. Olaf over several other programs, Gant replied, “Football and education. Period.”

Other players have realigned their priorities since arriving at St. Olaf, buying into Meidt’s idea of achieving balance between academics and athletics.

“When I came up here, I was all about playing football,” Thomas said. “Eighty percent football, twenty percent education. Today, it’s definitely different. Football is still a big priority, but getting an education is really why I’m here.”

While academics and athletics are the most visible aspects of St. Olaf’s football program, the atmosphere component of Meidt’s three A’s truly sets the his program apart.

“A lot of colleges offer a good education, and a lot of colleges offer athletics. The atmosphere is what distinguishes us from other programs,” Meidt said.

For other players, the family-type relationship among football players at St. Olaf is a real benefit.

“I like playing on a team where everyone hangs out together,” said Chris Orcasitas ’09, who hails from Winter Garden, Fla. “At a lot of places you could join the team and never get to know any of your teammates. But here everyone treats everyone else eally well.”

Other contributions

The influx of players from Florida has made a noticeable impact on the St. Olaf football program, helping the team to a 15-5 record over the past two seasons. Last season, six starters were from Florida; several other Floridians contributed regularly in varsity games. Their unique blend of speed and size, common among Florida athletes but rare in the Midwest, has helped transform the Oles from a MIAC also-ran into perrenial contenders for the conference title.

Several of Meidt’s “Florida guys” have made time to participate in activities outside of their football and academic commitments.

Greg St. Remy ’09 and Robert MacDonald ’08 play varsity basketball, while Trey Williams ’06, Horace Gant ’08, LaTravis Henry ’07 participate in track and field.

Outside of athletics, Gant performs in St. Olaf’s one-act play theatre festival, MacDonald and St. Remy have started rap groups, and Williams serves as a residents assistant in Mohn Hall. Several are members of St. Olaf’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Looking to the future

With the recruiting class of 2010 finalized, and recruiting efforts already underway for the class of 2011, the St. Olaf football program looks a lot different than it did just four seasons ago. With consecutive recruiting classes pushing 40 players, and a low dropout rate, the team has even purchased more jerseys and equipment for the 2006.

Though starters Andre Connor ’06 and Williams will graduate this year, the state of Florida will still be well represented in the Oles’ starting and second team lineups this fall. In addition to several new recruits from the Sunshine State, nearly a dozen returners project to be impact players for the 2006 season.

“We’re going to have at least four Florida guys starting for us next year,” said Meidt. “And at least eight more on the second team.”

Competing against the best of the MIAC year in and year out is a daunting task, but with Meidt’s Florida pipeline bringing several talented athletes northward each year, the Oles are now poised to move in the conference’s upper echelon.

For the complete college experience offered by Meidt and St. Olaf, forsaking a warmer climate is a small price to pay.

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