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While perusing the official team headshots of Colorado School of Mines football players, a pattern starts to emerge, one that’s clearly no accident.
John Matocha, the Orediggers’ star quarterback, is sporting pigtails and a drawn-on blue mustache. Safety Blake Ramsey has a tonsure haircut, with his scalp shaved and a ring of hair circling his head like a friar. Linebacker Owen Marnell is engaged in full Harry Potter cosplay, with glasses and a lightning bolt drawn on his forehead. Tight end Kenny Wright has his black bangs parted to the right, partially covering one of his eyes and making him look more like the frontman for an early-2000s emo band than a college football player.
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At a few different points this fall, the photos of those players and nearly two dozen of their fellow teammates went viral on social media because, frankly, they’re hilarious. What those players have managed to accomplish together this season is no laughing matter, though.
A Mines program that has grown into a national powerhouse at the Division II level over the past decade is authoring what might be its best season yet. This past Saturday, the Orediggers put an exclamation mark on an 11-0 regular season, beating Fort Lewis 82-0 and, in the process, clinching their fifth-consecutive Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference championship. They head into the national playoffs as the top-ranked team in Division II and, with a first-round bye, are four wins from delivering a national championship to the small engineering school in Golden.
The Denver area, which has already had teams claim NBA and NHL titles in the past 18 months, may soon have another champion to celebrate.
The Orediggers haven’t just won. As their very public portraits indicate, they’ve done so with a certain flair. They’re averaging a school-record 51.1 points per game, good for third among all Division II teams nationally, and have a top-five scoring defense, as well. They’ve blown out opponents, winning their past nine games by an average of 47 points, including a two-game stretch to wrap up the regular season in which they won by a combined score of 159-3.
At the center of that overpowering machine has been Matocha, last year’s winner of the Harlon Hill Trophy (effectively the Division II Heisman Trophy). With as many as four games remaining in his redshirt senior season, the 5-foot-11 signal-caller already has the Division II record for career touchdown passes (155), and in last Saturday’s walloping of Fort Lewis, he became the all-time leader in total touchdowns across all levels of college football, with 181.
Entering the postseason, his team is now within striking distance of program records for longest win streak and most wins in a season, both 13. And after losing in the national championship game last season, the Orediggers are well-positioned to return and finish the job.
It wasn’t always this way at Mines. From 1929 to 1999, the program had just 10 winning seasons, going 173-311-14 over that stretch. Bob Stitt, who was hired as the Orediggers’ coach after the 1999 season, told the Denver Post last year that the program had “zero support” and was plagued by an institutional mindset that players were “just here for school and football doesn’t matter.”
Under his watch, that started to change. Behind an innovative, high-scoring offense, Stitt led the team to the playoffs for the first time in 2004 and did so two more times over the next 10 years. By 2012, Mines was gaining national recognition, with West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen crediting Stitt in a postgame interview on national TV after his team used Stitt’s patented fly sweep play for four of its six touchdown passes in a 70-33 rout of Clemson in the Orange Bowl.
Stitt left after the 2014 season to become the University of Montana’s head coach, but the program’s success continued. Since then, coaches have come and gone—first-year coach Pete Sterbick is the team’s third head coach in as many years—but the team keeps on winning. Since 2004, the Orediggers have produced three different Harlon Hill recipients, the most of any school. Mines has won its conference, and earned a subsequent spot in the national playoffs, in seven of the past nine seasons. This most recent group of Orediggers has done it with its own distinctive style, with Matocha describing the team late last month to the Denver Gazette as “a bunch of goofy nerds who know how to get stuff done.”
The 2023 college football season has been an eventful one in Colorado. Deion Sanders has transformed Colorado into a national sensation, ever so briefly making Boulder the epicenter of the sport for the first time in three decades. Before losing back-to-back games this month, Air Force was undefeated and ranked in the top 20 of the major polls. When not chiding Sanders for his etiquette, Colorado State’s Jay Norvell has assembled perhaps the most eclectic roster in college football, one that features, among others, a 31-year-old father of three at kicker and a champion sumo wrestler on the defensive line.
But it’s becoming increasingly clear that perhaps the best team, and perhaps the best story, was in Golden all along.