The last time Ferris football played a game, they walked off the field as national champions.
On Friday, April 22, the Bulldogs took the field again for their annual spring game and to celebrate their Division II national championship win over Valdosta State Dec. 18.
Now in the NFL, former Bulldogs Austin Edwards, Tavierre Thomas and Malik Taylor returned to Big Rapids to celebrate with Ferris. Former NFL players Jason VanderLaan and Jake Lampman also experienced the day with the team.
“It’s incredible for them to feel that kind of allegiance to us,” head coach Tony Annese said. “And still they feel like they’re still part of the team. This ring was won because of people like them.”
The intersquad scrimmage brought fun and games to the Big Rapids community. There were special events at halftime, interviews with coaches and players and a legislative tribute from State Senator Rick Outman to the football team.
Fans eagerly awaited all winter to see the Bulldogs back in action. Before the game, fans tailgated in the parking lot, knocking the dust off their grills and cornhole boards before the season officially starts in a few months.
The game would bring tough contests from both teams, especially with a special scoring format that benefited from strong efforts in each facet of the game. Teams could earn one point for a first down, ten for a turnover, as well as the traditional scoring that we see in official games.
Festivities kept rolling after the kickoff, where team Crimson started with the ball at their own 25. With the absence of the recently graduated Jared Bernhardt, both teams incorporated more passing in this game than what seemed to be all of last season as a whole.
The end of the first half concluded a strong effort from both teams, but the Gold team faced a 36-11 deficit. Their answer came shortly into the third quarter, bringing the game within 11 points at 36-25. In the end, team Crimson claimed victory 47-33.
“I don’t even really know how the teams were split to be honest,” sophomore quarterback Mylik Mitchell said. “We’ll just all go celebrate tonight and enjoy it as a win for everybody really.”
While fans got to enjoy a great game of Ferris football, halftime brought additional entertainment that involved athletes from the other Bulldog athletic programs. One event was a field goal kicking competition between members of the soccer team and men’s basketball team.
Jimmy Scholler and Vejas Grazulis of the men’s basketball team put up a solid performance through the uprights, but couldn’t match the kicking prowess of Nikki May, Lindsay Cole, and Katie Nesco. All three nailed kicks from 30 yards out, but couldn’t make the mark when the ball was moved 10 more yards. All five showed impressive displays of athleticism.
The kicking competition was followed by a football passing relay consisting of three teams who would race the length of the football field. All while having to pass, catch, run, and repeat their way 100 yards down field. The women’s basketball team won it convincingly, thanks to Kadyn Blanchard, Grace Sullivan, and Jolee Houle bombing throws down field.
“The events were an awesome addition to the game, making it more enjoyable and giving it entertainment,” sophomore offensive linemen Kai Serviss said.
After, the football coaches fired up the punt machine to test the catching abilities of the coaches and some football players. From the back of the endzone, the ball was fired high into the air, leaving the participants scrambling to make the catch. Tesfa Smith got the players jumping when he pulled down the first catch for the coaches.
Serviss stepped up to the fifty-yard line, and it looked like he got a bad jump on the ball. But a quick adjustment led to him hauling the ball in, causing the players to go crazy.
“My favorite part about the game was just being able to have fans back in the stadium, and seeing all my old teammates who are now alumni,” Serviss said.
After the 3rd quarter, Outman and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer presented Annese and the members of the football team with legislative tributes to the success of the team. This was an incredible gesture that let the community of Big Rapids and fans of Ferris football know the support given across the state.
For a lot of the players, the spring game was the first time they could suit up and get out on the field. Chris Cezik, an offensive lineman who recently walked-on to the team, got to see the work that he put in to get onto the team come to fruition.
“It was overwhelming at first, especially me playing at this level for the first time,” Cezik said. “All the guys treated me as one of them and I couldn’t have asked for better teammates to go through tis journey with.”
With all the commotion at the game, the party stayed alive later that night, as the ring presentation ceremony took place in the University Center. Not only were the rings given to the coaches, players, and staff members, but offensive lineman Dylan Pasquali officially received the Gene Upshaw award. It was a crowning achievement for being the best linemen in all of NCAA Division II football, and a testament to his hard work of pushing himself and the team to be the best.
President David Eisler, Athletic Director Steve Brockelbank and Annese spoke during the ceremony. Their speeches further cemented the reality that the Bulldogs are champions but are ready to get back to work to win another one.
“Our work ethic has been better since we won the national championship than it was the previous year,” Annese said. “Our guys have been just unbelievable in the offseason preparation and spring ball has been the same.”
Although business was finished in McKinney last December, the hunger and drive to get back is that much more prevalent in the players.
It was a great day to celebrate the success of the Ferris football program that has been culminating since the day Annese was hired nearly 11 years ago. Winning a national championship sets the standard, as well as what is expected for the future of the program.