Cal Yordt—Guest Writer
In 2016, Dordt University Head Football Coach Joel Penner and his staff were hired. They had a difficult task set before them: their new program had never won more than two games in a season. Penner needed a plan. He and his staff sat down with leaders of the team and put together a list of goals for the program, including maintaining a collective 3.0 GPA, achieving both academic and athletic all-American honors, and other things the program had never accomplished before.
These goals were posted on individual shelves in the Defender locker room. As soon as a goal was met, a rock was then engraved and placed on the shelf in its place.
For Devin Eekhoff, a former player and current graduate assistant, there is no better feeling than seeing Coach Penner raise that rock in the air.
“Every time I take recruits through the locker room, I tell them that it’s a symbol of all your hard work and sacrifice being rewarded and recognized,” Eekhoff said.
When Penner knows there’s an opportunity to raise a rock, he never fails to bring it.
Lynn Nutt, the defensive coordinator, recognizes how the Defenders have grown from their strong core.
“When we started here, we had a lot of guys that I would have asked to babysit my daughter, but now we have a lot of guys I would ask to babysit my daughter and that are very talented at football,” Nutt said.
One of the biggest goals Penner and his crew set out was a playoff berth—something never been done before in program history. This seemed outlandish to some at the time. Five years later brought 2020—a season many were unsure would happen amid COVID-19.
Nonetheless, it was also a season that presented hope for the Defenders as they were ranked no. 24 in the preseason.
The day the Defenders moved into their dorms for fall camp was the day the NAIA moved all fall sport championships to the spring. That regular season ended up as the best Dordt football had ever seen, as they posted an 8-2 record and set many statistical records on either side of the ball. The offense led the nation in yards per game, and the fefense led the nation in sacks.
On Nov. 23, 2020, the team team gathered in the Wilson tent for the last time.
As tradition for Penner’s program, he gathered the team to allow the seniors to give parting words to the rest of the team. But this meeting was different. Despite the seniors having their time with the returning players, they would return with the team in the spring. Penner left the decision up to the individual if they would be returning for the spring. Many of them did, and they hoped they would be given a chance to play another football game come April.
When the team came back from winter break, they continued their lifting and conditioning program they had been doing over break. Two weeks into the spring season, Dordt accepted a game against Oklahoma Panhandle State University, hoping it would boost their playoff chances. The team made the 11-hour bus trip and took care of business, beating OPSU 53-0. After the win, the next two weeks consisted of a lot waiting, prayers, and nervousness.
On April 11, Penner gathered his team in the B.J. Hann in the evening to watch the NAIA’s “Selection Sunday.” In his bag, he carried a rock in hope of hoisting it up in front of his team. The show started by announcing the top four teams: Morningside, Grand View, Lindsey Wilson, and Kaiser. Next, they announced that Morningside would be playing Carroll University out of Montana; then they announced, “Traveling to Des Moines to face Grandview University will be…Dordt University in Sioux Center Iowa.” The entire team jumped out of their seats and erupted in cheers, high fiving and hugging each other.
Once the rest of the bracket was announced, Penner walked down to the stage from where he was seated in the back corner, stopped at the edge of the stage, pulled the rock out of his bag, walked across the stage, and hoisted the rock above his head. This time, the team cheered even louder than the time before, and those who had been at Dordt the longest were even moved to tears.
Eekhoff was excited and especially grateful when the announcement was made. He was thankful for all the guys who came before him—even before Penner and his staff ran the program.
“The people I was most grateful for were the guys I played with and the ones I’m coaching right now. Me and the guys I played with would talk about making the playoffs in the dorms. And to be a part of the coaching staff that went to the playoffs first was really cool,” Eekhoff said.
For Nutt, the playoff-berth announcement brough two emotions to him. The first was excitement for the team—especially for the seniors who began their college careers with a team far from postseason dreams and ended them with a playoff-caliber roster.
“The one that’s going to surprise people was anger,” Nutt said. “I was so angry for Josh and Colyn.”
Here, Nutt is referencing Josh Mrazek, the starting middle linebacker for the past three seasons, and Colyn Oostenink, the starting edge rusher. Both players were slated to play their last games in the playoffs when they both suffered ACL tears two weeks apart.
“Those are two guys who had never been injured and did everything the right way,” Nutt said. “They worked hard and helped lead the young guys behind them. For them to both get hurt and not be able to play in a game they worked their whole career for made me hurt for them.”
Dordt fell to Grandview in their first trip to the playoffs, but they plan on being back next year with a new rock to raise: first playoff win.