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Guest Opinion: SOU gridders showed great character

Marian University won the big game by a 31-14 score but Southern Oregon University was a big winner during its trip to Daytona Beach for last Saturday's NAIA football championship.

It's easy to exhibit graciousness and humility when things go well, but true character is often manifested while under duress. Even in its most crushing moment in recent program history — when the school's hope for a back-to-back national championship was quashed — SOU lived up to head coach Craig Howard's "Character - Strength - Honor" mantra.

Howard and the Raiders held their heads high in defeat — as they should — and congratulated each Marian player and coach in the postgame handshake line. By comparison, and with respect to the champions, it was a striking contrast to the moments immediately following last year's 55-31 Southern Oregon victory over the same Marian program when many Knight players made a beeline straight to the locker room.

Coping with defeat is never easy, especially when the performance is in front of a national audience.

After the game in the media interview room, Howard, quarterback Tanner Trosin, receiver Jeremy Scottow and defensive back Julius Rucker didn't make excuses and were effusive in their praise for the Knights. It was a refreshing demonstration of sportsmanship often absent in the world of sport.

In the days leading up to the game, Southern Oregon University's players, coaches, parents and spectators were champions of character, and I have never been so proud to be associated with our university, formerly as a 12-year employee and now as a fan of its sports teams.

The players were friendly, well mannered and polite on the plane and in the hotel, before and after the game. During the NAIA awards dinner the night before the game, the Raiders initiated a standing ovation for Morningside College quarterback Ryan Kasdorf, their rival in the semifinals, when he was introduced as the 2015 national player-of-the-year — the NAIA equivalent of the Heisman Trophy.

Underscoring his Everybody-A-Raider family atmosphere, Howard took an unconventional step of inviting parents and fans to watch the team's final pre-game briefing in which he and his coaching staff supplied more than just motivational speeches and technical reminders. What ensued were affirmations of exactly how closely knit the Raider football program is. Howard ended the meeting by asking the student-athletes to acknowledge the most important people in their lives — possibly the most touching moment of the entire season.

Raider fans who made the journey were every bit as supportive when the team trailed 21-0 in the fourth quarter as when they blew the roof off the Daytona Beach bandshell at the Thursday pep rally featuring both schools. SOU easily won the battle of school spirit, enthusiasm and exuberance, and the charter flight concluded with applause and appreciation of the second-best season in the program's 88-year history.

Howard vows his Raiders will return to the national championship stage, and he challenged Marian to do the same for what would be an unprecedented third consecutive meeting. That will be difficult task for both schools because merely qualifying for the 16-team playoff field, let alone winning three postseason games, is a grind.

However, as he said to the team before and after the game, identity is not defined by success. It's defined by character, and Southern Oregon will win that matchup every year.

Rich Rosenthal is a member of the Ashland City Council. He was one of 48 fans who paid for a seat on the football team's charter flight to and from Daytona Beach.