By Caitlin Slater, Guest Writer
APU’s football season has had an impressive start. With four games, all wins, already under their belt, the team will head into this weekend to play Western Oregon. As they strive to keep up their winning streak, the team agrees that it’s their bond that sets them apart this year.
Last season, the young team finished 6-4 and struggled to find their identity. This year, however, the 4-0 team has discovered who they are with the help of strong team leadership. Head coach Victor Santa Cruz gave his perspective on why leadership is an important priority this year.
“One thing we have done different this season is [we] have a more intentional collaboration with the players when it comes to the whole program,” Santa Cruz said. “We’ve flattened out the organization so there’s more voice coming out from players of all different classes, not just seniors. We’ve intentionally involved the younger classes when it comes to creating culture and creating influence, without undermining the leadership that the seniors are.”
These changes could be what brings the team together and closer to a Division II title. Junior quarterback Andrew Elffers sees this change as being rooted in a positive team culture and attitude.
“You can have all the athleticism in the world, but if your culture isn’t sound and you don’t have guys that love each other, you’re not going to be playing for one another when you get out there,” Elffers said. “We love each other, and that’s why we play so hard on the field.”
The team finds time in their busy schedules to bond even outside of practice.
“We love being together both on and off the field. Whether it is at the weight room or the pool, we have a great time,” senior cornerback C.J. Broussard said. “When we’re on the field, we can trust each other because we have developed such a tight bond.”
Despite many returning players, this year’s receiving core and offensive line consists of all first-timers. However, Santa Cruz is adamant that the entire offensive line has hugely impacted the team’s recent success.
“It’s impressive [because] they’re all brand-new players,” Santa Cruz said. “In a sense, some are returners, but it’s the first time they’ve played.”
Also impressive is the success that the offense has had in the rushing game with such a young offensive line. Sophomore running back Kurt Scoby, senior running back Samuela Fanua and quarterback Elffers have all proven to be effective threats on offense.
“Our offense has yet to reach its full potential,” Elffers said. “We are working toward that and that’s what’s driving us right now.”
During a game against Central Washington, Elffers completed 12-of-22 passes for 169 yards and scored three touchdowns, helping bring in the win at 27-17. Elffers has been spending a lot of time with offensive coordinator Rudy Carlton, who is helping him improve in the offensive game plan and lead the team.
“A lot of the time, people think practice makes a perfect game, but it’s perfect practice [that] prepares you for perfect game,” Elffers said. “As quarterback, my responsibility is to lead the offense and distribute the ball to our playmakers. As a team, we need to make sure every rep counts and play as if it was a game. We are doing a good job of that this year, and I am excited to see that continue.”
The Cougars’ defense has been dominant so far this season by stopping high-powered ranked teams like West Texas A&M and Humboldt State. This defensive effort has been led by defensive backs Broussard, senior Tyree Davis and junior Taliuaki Suliafu.
Broussard was just named Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) defensive player of the week following his six tackles and one interception performance against Central Washington on Sept. 17.
Broussard gives credit to a defense that has come a long way over the past few seasons, noting that the players were encouraged to stay all summer and work out together in order to create a better culture and closer team bond.
“[That goal] shows the maturity of our defense,” Broussard said. “In the past years we’ve had a younger group of guys, but this year we’ve really stepped up. I think our leadership on and off the field has played a lot into it.”
Regarding future success, Broussard has his sights set on helping the team win another GNAC title. Santa Cruz is proud of how far this team has come and is excited to see what the rest of the season holds.
This is the first time in Santa Cruz’s career as APU’s head coach where the team has started the season 4-0.
“Winning is a culmination of all the hard work that goes into it,” Santa Cruz said. “They sacrifice way more than anyone will ever know, and just to win these victories together is a real sign of who they’ve become as a team, so I’m excited for them and for the rest of our season.”
The Cougars crushed Simon Fraser University by 50 points on Sept. 24, beating them by a score of 64-14. Both Elffers and senior Chad Jeffries had success as quarterback, throwing for three touchdowns each and combining for 347 yards through the air. Redshirt freshmen wide receivers Weston Carr and Brandon Jackson stepped up in that game, combining for over 200 yards receiving and four touchdowns.
APU is currently ranked 14th in the American Football Coaches Association Division II Coach’s poll and will play their next game on Saturday, Oct. 1 at Western Oregon.