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Raiders enjoyed a week to remember

ASHLAND — Meeting Tim Tebow, talking to students at a local elementary school and driving 165 mph around Daytona International Speedway were cited by the Southern Oregon football team as some of the highlights of NAIA championship week in Daytona Beach, Fla.

The game, not so much.

Following a week of fun in the sun capped by Saturday’s championship game against Marian, the Raiders touched down at Rogue Valley International Sunday afternoon and on Monday reflected on an experience that included plenty of highs capped off by one major low — a decidedly un-Raider-like 31-14 loss to the Knights at Municipal Stadium.

Seventh-ranked Southern Oregon entered the game as the reigning champion, having disposed of Marian spectacularly in last year’s final, but the sixth-ranked Knights held SOU’s high-flying offense scoreless in the first half and built a 21-0 lead before ultimately claiming their second national title in the last four years.

Afterward, SOU coach Craig Howard tried to focus on the positives.

“One thing I told them,” he said of his postgame speech, “is that when I got here (in 2011), it was big news when we won a game. Now it’s big news when we lose a game. So we’ve turned a corner.”

The Raiders arrived in Florida on Tuesday afternoon and almost immediately took a bus to Municipal Stadium for their first of four practices in the Sunshine State, Howard’s way of helping the team acclimate to the humidity. There, the team was greeted by a special guest — Tebow, the former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who, prior to becoming a national phenomena at the University of Florida, played for Howard at Allen D. Nease High School in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.

It was, Howard said, a meeting that took weeks to arrange and one that required Tebow, now an analyst for ESPN, to fly in from Charlotte, N.C., on a private jet (Howard also was trying to land former Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell of “Lone Survivor” fame, but that fell through). But, to Howard and the Raiders, it was well worth it.

A two-time national champion himself, Tebow watched the Raiders practice then went back with them to the hotel, where he spoke to the team about football and life.

“He delivered quite the message to us,” said SOU junior receiver Matt Retzlaff, who led the Raiders against Marian with eight catches for 82 yards and two touchdowns. “It was really amazing, very inspirational. … He had a message of three things that just really stuck out. He spoke to us about having a passion for the game, finding your edge and having swag. But when he mentioned swag, it was not just like nodding your head and thinking that you’re all that. It was having a belief in yourself and having a belief in your teammates and the people surrounding you, and that kind of opened my eyes to a different meaning of swag. He said God has a greater plan for you. Football doesn’t mean everything, but God will have the plan and you just gotta believe in it.”

Retzlaff was one of several Raiders who were able to play catch with Tebow during practice. SOU senior cornerback Karrington Jones also took a few pictures with the Florida legend and said the speech was memorable for him as well.

“He just talked about when he played for coach Howard in high school and how great coach Howard and coach Foz (SOU offensive coordinator Ken Fasnacht) were and his history with them in high school and what he did through college — how he kept pursuing his dream,” said Jones, who was tied for second in the nation with seven interceptions.

“When it was over,” Howard said, “many of the players came up to me and said, ‘Coach, it seemed like he was our big brother, it seemed like he was a Raider, like he was one of us, our family.’ He really related well to our players.”

Two days later, the Raiders were given a special tour of Daytona International Speedway, the famed track which has hosted the Daytona 500 since opening in 1959. Howard took the first test drive and a host of Raiders followed.

“We were going like 145 miles per hour, that was crazy,” Jones said. “I’ve never gone that fast, ever. Especially around a race car track. Just crazy.”

Howard was the first SOU representative to brave the oval. He took a test run with his son, Bo, and for the second time in as many years was floored by the experience.

“Hell, I think I wet my pants,” he said, “but I don’t want to embarrass anybody.”

That night, both teams were honored during a pep rally at a beachside bandshell which featured a performance by a local prep drum line. The following night, the NAIA Banquet of Champions was held at the Hilton Daytona Beach Oceanfront Resort.

On game day, the Raiders’ team bus arrived at Municipal Stadium a little before 1 p.m. for the game, which was scheduled to kickoff a little after 3 p.m. Howard, Retzlaff and Jones all agreed that the confidence was high in the locker room before the game, and the mood laid back, which is exactly the way Howard likes it before a big game.

Then the game began, and everything changed.

Three of the Raiders’ first five drives began near midfield, as the SOU defense and special teams held up their end of the bargain in the early going. But the Raider offense, ranked among the nation’s best in both scoring and total offense, couldn’t take advantage of that stellar field position — they punted away the first two opportunities and were stuffed on a fourth-and-2 play at the Marian 23 early in the second quarter.

That turned out to be the Raiders’ best chance to draw first blood. The Knights put together a 13-play, 77-yard drive on their next possession to take the lead for good and led 14-0 at halftime.

“Going in, we felt really prepared,” Retzlaff said. “We felt confident. We just couldn’t get a rhythm and a flow in our offense in the first half. I guess going into it, we were trying to have the same mindset as we did last year, trying to mimic exactly what we did last year but with a few twitches and tweaks. But they came out just being the better team and we gotta take that in reality and just prepare for next year’s game.”

“I felt like we weren’t executing on plays that we should have,” Jones said.

Howard said the pressure of the moment may have played a part in SOU’s sloppy start, which included a dropped pass near the goal line and a few off-target throws by the normally reliable Trosin.

“My whole philosophy there is to keep them loose and to have fun, not be uptight,” Howard said. “I felt that we were on track. And then things changed. Once the game started, we didn’t stay loose, we changed. We didn’t play Raider football. It was the worst football game we’ve played, I think, since I’ve been here, relatively.”

Retzlaff credited the Knights’ physicality and execution, but said SOU didn’t do itself any favors by squandering multiple first-half opportunities by making silly mistakes.

“They had a great front seven, a great defensive line,” Retzlaff said. “But the end result is, we were the ones that defeated ourselves. There were just little bits and pieces that just did not click like they did in our offense earlier in the season. I don’t know if it was the pressure of being on national TV or it was just the pressure of being in a national championship game, but some nerves got to us.”

It also didn’t help that SOU lost starting running back Melvin Mason, who scored four touchdowns in last year’s championship game, to an ankle injury on its fifth play from scrimmage.

The Raiders did manage to produce the highlight of the game, however, executing a perfectly-executed trick play in which Trosin threw a lateral that skipped off the turf to receiver Jeremy Scottow, who then lofted a 32-yard touchdown pass to Retzlaff to cut the deficit to 21-6 early in the fourth quarter. The play, named “double-trouble,” came in at No. 5 on ESPN’s rundown of the day’s top-10 plays.

The play gave the Raiders a momentary lift that they hoped might carry them to a dramatic comeback, but Marian answered with a 77-yard touchdown drive and that was that.

The loss was SOU’s first postseason setback since the 2012 quarterfinals (the Raiders did not qualify for the playoffs in 2013) and its lowest scoring output since a regular season loss in October of 2011.

Afterward, Howard said there were a lot of tears on the SOU sideline. He couldn’t remember much of what he said during his postgame speech, except that he tried to remind the players of their incredible postseason run, which included road wins over No. 1 Morningside and No. 2 Baker.

The SOU coaches will meet one more time this week before their Christmas break, after which they’ll begin to identify which positions they need to recruit. Near the top of the list, Howard said, is a deep-threat wide receiver who can help take the pressure off Trosin when the Raiders are facing a front-heavy team like Marian.

“What a team,” Howard said. “It’s a team that fought back, a team with that never-say-die spirit, that clawed and scrapped and fought to get there. It was incredible.”

Joe Zavala is sports editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-821-0829, or email jzavala@dailytidings.com.