Connor Van Hulzen— Staff Writer
On April 17, for the first time since the inception of the program in 2007, the Dordt University Defender football team will participate in the NAIA playoffs.
After receiving an at-large bid from the NAIA playoff selection committee, the 13-seeded Dordt Defenders will face off against the 2-seeded Grand View Vikings in Des Moines, Iowa on Saturday.
After finishing the season ranked no. 18 in the NAIA coaches’ poll, Dordt was eligible for an at-large bid for the NAIA playoffs. As only the first-place finisher from each conference receives an automatic bid, the Defenders joined the Red Raiders of Northwestern as two GPAC teams selected for the playoffs.
The long road to playoffs began with the hiring of Head Coach Joel Penner—who had previously served as the Malone University offensive coordinator—before the 2016 season.
“Back when I was first hired, I asked every player on the team for their hopes and dreams for the program in the near or distant future.” Penner said, “I took 12 or 13 of the most common goals, and that list became our rock wall. One of those goals was to go to the playoffs. Another was to win a playoff game.”
In the football locker room, there is a wall that lists each of those goals. When one is completed, a rock is placed on a shelf near a description of the goal—an ode to 1 Samuel 7.
“Samuel built a monument of rocks after a victory,” Penner said, “and then he called it an ‘ebenezer’, or, ‘The Lord has helped us.’ Our rock shelf wall acts in the same way to remind us that our Lord has helped us all along our way.”
Penner took over a program that had just completed five straight 2-9 seasons. He led a swift turnaround, improving to a 5-6 record in his first year at the helm.
In only his third season as head coach in 2018, Penner led the Defenders to their first-ever above .500 season, with the team finishing 7-3 overall.
Following another successful season in 2019 where the team finished 7-4 while continuing to exhibit a promising future, the Defenders continued their record success in the ensuing season.
In 2020, the Defenders finished the regular season with an 8-2 record with its only losses coming from traditional powerhouses of the GPAC. The first loss came by eight in a closely contested game to a Northwestern team that would finish the season ranked sixth overall in the NAIA. The second came after a last-second comeback fell short against Morningside, the first-ranked defending NAIA Champions.
The quest to reach the playoffs included several unforeseen stops along the way. An early season game against GPAC opponent Jamestown was cancelled over a COVID-19 outbreak in the Jimmies’ program, and the Defenders continued through an unusual spring regular game season. After its record and experience the past few seasons, Dordt is primed and ready to make a splash on the national stage.
“Grand View is a very talented team.” Penner said, “They’re probably the most physically talented team we’ve seen on film this year. It’ll take our best, but that’s what we’re going to give them.”
On April 11, Penner stood in the B.J. Haan and held up a rock in celebration of Dordt’s first playoff qualification. He will bring another with the team as they travel to play Grand View in hopes of lifting it in Des Moines on Saturday to signify Dordt’s first ever playoff victory.