By ANDY WOLF
The University of Findlay’s football team didn’t just get its feet wet in the postseason.
The Oilers made a splash.
Findlay convincingly picked up its first Division II playoff victory before bowing out in the next round.
The team’s 10-3 finish marks the highest win total in seven seasons under head coach Rob Keys and the most in 20 years.
Findlay was coming off consecutive 6-5 seasons in their final years in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
With a bulk of talent and experience coming back, Keys could tell the returnees were ready to take that next step in the newly-formed Great Midwest Athletic Conference.
The progress over winter conditioning, spring ball and summer workouts proved it.
“You felt a different level of urgency,” Keys said.
Findlay began its season with a 28-13 victory over rival Tiffin — the 18th straight in the series.
A tough loss to then No. 2 Ferris State (48-27) in Week 2 dealt the team some adversity but didn’t knock them off course.
“Even after the Ferris loss we realized we still had potential to compete with anybody,” Keys said.
The Oilers responded with lopsided nonconference wins over William Jewell (55-17) on the road and Tuskegee (61-0) — a playoff team in 2016.
The Golden Tigers won seven straight to close their season at 9-2 and just outside of a playoff berth.
“When it first happened we were really excited,” Keys said of the Tuskegee win. “Then you reflected and said ‘Maybe they’re not really good’ and then you watch them go 9-2 and made that win even bigger.”
That statement win set a dominating tone for conference play.
The Oilers demolished their first six foes by 46.1 points per game before falling 49-24 in the regular season finale to Ohio Dominican.
The loss cost the Oilers a GMAC title but not a playoff berth.
Given new life, Findlay took it right to No. 2 Shepherd and prevailed 29-17 in its first playoff appearance.
Perhaps no longer the under the radar, the Oilers couldn’t quite establish its run game and had to play catchup the entire game in falling 45-26 to No. 15 Assumption.
As much as the loss stung, senior Airion Kosak called the year “the best season of football” he’s had.
“I’m just proud,” Kosak, one of 10 seniors, said. “I’m just really proud of my guys.
“We really played together this year and it was a very close-knit team. It’s the closest team I’ve ever been a part of. I gained a whole bunch of brothers.”
Injuries will always apart of the game and UF was no different.
The “next-man-up” mentality at nearly every position helped the Oilers play well into Week 13.
There’s plenty of reasons to think they can do it again next season.
Junior quarterback Rhys Gervais recognized some key graduation losses such as Kosak (1,292 career yards) and senior defensive back Aaron Ivory (9 career INTs), amongst others, but feels confident in the returning depth.
“Honestly, it’s going to push us forward pretty well and I feel very comfortable with where we’re going,” Gervais said.
Other key losses include senior running backs Chauncey Bridges and Daouda Sylla, each with a 1,000-yard season under their belts, starting defensive linemen Johnny Hopkins and Ashton Elmore, and fourth-year starting offensive lineman Andrew Alten.
Hopkins and Alten were, respectively, named GMAC defensive and offensive linemen of the year.
The team also graduates wide receiver Darnell Fields and an experienced defensive back in Rhon Houston (76 career tackles).
The Oilers took on an underdog role through their playoff run.
Keys feels it’s going to be hard to do it again next year.
He noted sneaking up on a few teams even in 2011 and 2012 with road wins over perennial power Grand Valley State in his first season and then over a ranked Saginaw Valley State the following year.
“Every team we face they’re going to talk about ‘Hey, this is a playoff team. We have the chance to knock of a playoff team,’” Keys said. “It’s not going to replicate itself. It’s going to take so much more work than it took last year and it is harder to stay at that level than it is to get there.”
Football: 2017 In Review
By ANDY WOLF