Column: SEMO football wins OVC title 'the hard way,' which is only fitting

Southeast Missouri State football players and coaches hoist the Ohio Valley Conference championship plaque after winning a share of the league title against Murray State Saturday at Houck Stadium in Cape Girardeau. The Redhawks share the title with Austin Peay.
Tyler Graef ~ Southeast Missourian

Three feet.

That is the distance the Southeast Missouri State football offense needed to gain in the closing minutes of its game with Murray State Saturday to secure a share of the Ohio Valley Conference championship for the first time in nearly a decade.

Facing a fourth-and-1 and leading by one score, the Redhawks had the snap sail over quarterback Daniel Santacaterina’s head for a 16-yard loss, thus allowing Murray State 2:28 to try and steal a second straight league title from Southeast’s grasp.

“We used to talk about ‘The hard way,’” sixth-year Redhawk coach Tom Matukewicz said following the 31-24 eventual win over the Racers at Houck Stadium. “That is kind of us. Everything we do is hard.”

It is.

Southeast (9-3, 7-1 OVC) shut out Murray State (4-8, 2-6) in the second half to rally for the victory, which allowed it to share the 2019 league title with Austin Peay. The Governors beat Eastern Illinois and finished with the same record as the Redhawks.

The Southeast program has climbed from nowhere to somewhere in an extremely arduous manner. And because of that journey, everyone associated with the program – I mean everyone – from the administrators to the fans to the coaches and players, has a deeper appreciation for what was achieved in sharing the championship than in many winning situations.

“It’s all about how you respond,” Matukewicz said. “That is what our team has been able to do all year. They don’t get shaken.”

On a micro level, nothing that occurred Saturday rattled this program.

At halftime, the Racers were on pace to gain nearly 600 yards of offense and score 48 points, as they led 24-17.

“We’ve been there before,” Santacaterina said. “There was no panic at all.”

There never is any “panic” with these guys.

That isn’t to say they will always win, because they aren’t undefeated, but the belief in each other never wavers.

The Redhawk defense performed in the second half like it has on many occasions and rose to a challenge.

It held the Racers to a meager 112 yards of offense and zero points over the final 30 minutes.

“(Defensive coordinator Bryce Saia) and his staff do a great job,” Matukewicz said. “We’ve been running the same defense since we were at Toledo (during the 2012 and 2013 seasons), so we know how to adjust it.”

On a macro level, the Redhawks also “know how to adjust” when it comes to obstacles, which explains why they are where they are today.

Houck Stadium has about one more building inspection left in it before it needs to be condemned, yet, Southeast has more victories in the past 16 months (18) than any other OVC squad.

The Rosengarten Athletic Complex is adequate and that’s about it, while the financial resources devoted to Redhawk athletics pale in comparison to the top teams in the league.

But despite all of that, it was the Redhawk student-athletes who were dancing at midfield holding up the championship trophy.

“We talk about that with our players,” Matukewicz said. “You can’t control a lot of things. “We can’t control all of these things that we could (complain) about and it ain’t going to help us.

“The only thing we can do is control our response.”

How the program responds is to work and that diligence showed on the field Saturday.

Louisville native Zach Hall led the Redhawks with 10 tackles and a 61-yard interception return for a score.

His Male High School teammate, wide receiver Zack Smith, caught five passes, two of which went for touchdowns.

Redhawk defenders (and Louisville natives) Omardrick Douglas and Bryant Pirtle combined for 11 tackles and a quarterback hurry.

Each of them had to drive past Murray State to get to Cape Girardeau.

It was the Redhawk coaches “work” on the recruiting trail, their “work” in developing the players, and the athletes’ “work” in evolving into talented performers, that made the difference Saturday.

“That is why this is so special,” Matukewicz said. “We just worked. It’s a combination of a bunch of people working toward a common goal and it finally got done.”

Tom Davis is the regional sports editor for Rust Communications. He oversees and the Southeast Missourian.

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