Colorado State-Pueblo’s seven-year climb to the national championship podium is complete.
And the ThunderWolves didn’t wait until the final gun to begin the celebration of their NCAA Division II championship with a 13-0 victory over Minnesota State on before 6,762 people at Sporting Park on Saturday.
With about 35 seconds remaining, when it became apparent the team would not be required to take another snap, the sideline spilled onto the field, arms raised in triumph.
Later, coach John Wristen fought back tears explaining the program’s journey from restoration to title.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Kansas City Star
“I wanted to be part of something special to Pueblo, Colorado,” Wristen said. “We just put our head down and went to work.”
Wristen, a quarterback when the school was known as the University of Southern Colorado in the early 1980s, has been the architect. Football and other sports were shut down in 1984 as a cost-cutting measure. Since football’s return to competition in 2008, the ThunderWolves have been a national power and have posted a 48-4 record over the last four years.
The program had been knocking on the door of national success in that time, and on Saturday, CSU-Pueblo finished the job.
“To be able to come through in the end like this, it’s beautiful,” said senior wide receiver Paul Browning, who scored the game’s only touchdown.
Saturday, CSU-Pueblo rode its stout defense, holding Minnesota State to 265 total yards. The Mavericks were shut out for the first time since 2004, a span of 128 games.
“They played outstanding,” Wristen said.
They also were motivated. Wristen made sure his team knew that Minnesota State entered the game ranked first nationally in scoring defense.
The ThunderWolves can play some defense, too, was the message, and that happened throughout the game.
But the single biggest moment probably came early in the second quarter. After CSU-Pueblo had missed a field goal, Minnesota State responded with its best drive of the day, reaching the ThunderWolves’ 8.
The Mavs were at the 11 when they lined up for a 27-yard field goal. Josh Bredl broke through for the block.
“That was a huge momentum change,” Wristen said. “We kind of got going there.”
CSU-Pueblo needed something good to happen. Its first snap ended in an interception. It missed a field goal. Running back Cameron McDondle, the team’s most productive player, hadn’t gotten going.
But after the field-goal block, McDondle starting getting yards in chunks. His 34-yard gain set up the game’s first score, a 27-yard field goal by Greg O’Donnell.
When they got the ball back, the ThunderWolves were off and running. They reached the Mavericks’ 18, when quarterback Chris Bonner lofted a perfect strike to Paul Browning down the sideline for the game’s only touchdown.
The same play resulted in an interception at the game’s start.
“I just saw a good matchup out there with Paul, and any time I’ve seen that this year, I know if I give him a chance to go out and get it he will,” Bonner said.
With a two-score lead and a dominant defense, the ThunderWolves had taken control at halftime. They added to the bounty in the second half with McDondle carrying the load. His 19-yard run and 30-yard catch and run got them to the 11.
There, O’Donnell’s 24-yard field goal made it 13-0.
Before it was over, McDondle, who finished with 113 rushing yards, had surpassed 2,000 rushing yards for the year, and when it ended the ThunderWolves had the first shutout in a Division II championship game since 1997.
“Our defense was outstanding, and our offense made the plays they needed to make to win the game,” Wristen said. “We’re here and we finished it.”
Seven years after the process started.