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Column: Chapman’s Division III football playoff win offers nourishment for a sports fan’s soul

Chapman wide receiver Wyatt Hardin makes a touchdown catch in front of Linfield cornerback Chris Adamo on Nov. 23, 2019.
Chapman’s Wyatt Hardin makes a touchdown catch in front of Linfield’s Chris Adamo. Chapman won 68-65 in triple overtime.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Chapman University’s first football playoff victory was a feast for the eyes and nourishment for a sports fan’s soul. It was a historic moment for the Division III Panthers and a perfect antidote to the many sour aspects of big-time college football, a few hours well spent on a sunny Saturday afternoon in a small stadium watching two teams with big hearts.

Forty miles away from where the Panthers defeated Linfield College 68-65 in triple overtime before an announced crowd of 1,221, USC and UCLA played their annual rivalry game before more than 64,000 fans at the Coliseum. That was supposed to be the marquee game played in Southern California on Saturday.

“Big deal. This is playoffs,” said Dan Wilbanks of San Jose, whose son Jacob is a Chapman senior tackle.

Wilbanks’ right arm was in a sling, the result of surgery to repair a tendon he tore when his car rolled over while he was driving to a game a few weeks ago. The bandages and pain weren’t going to prevent him from watching his son play Saturday. “It’s been the greatest experience for him,” Wilbanks said. “You play Division III football for your love of the sport.”

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Sometimes, that means playing in front of small crowds. But that was irrelevant to Chapman junior quarterback Jonston MacIntyre, who completed nine of 16 passes for 141 yards and two touchdowns while sharing the load with sophomore Reed Vettel. “It was a very exciting game today,” said MacIntyre, who also had 49 rushing yards and one touchdown in 17 carries. “I’m sure the game plan that USC and UCLA had wasn’t as entertaining as ours today.

“Division III, Division I, it’s still football, and we play a really good brand of football here.”

It was only the third playoff appearance for the Panthers, who won their third SCIAC title on the strength of the first nine-win season in program history. Their previous two postseason appearances were road losses. “I think it was, if you were a spectator, it was a pretty awesome game to watch. But if you were in the middle of it, it’s like being right in the middle of a storm,” said coach Bob Owens, whose team will face St. John’s of Minnesota next week at a site to be determined by the NCAA.

It was dizzying and often dazzling. Junior Dillon Keefe of Orange and El Modena High earned the rare distinction of having a hand in three touchdowns scored in different ways: on the first, while playing linebacker, he pounced on a fumble and returned it 21 yards for Chapman’s first touchdown. On the second, he ran 10 yards to help bring the Panthers back even at 34-34, with 5:19 left in the third quarter. And on the third, he took a pitch from Vettel and passed to wide receiver Spencer Corona for a 25-yard touchdown play in the second overtime.

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Chapman led 21-7 in the first quarter but Linfield scored three times in the second quarter, with one missed extra point. Linfield outscored Chapman in the third quarter 7-6 and each team scored twice in the fourth quarter, with MacIntyre finding Wyatt Hardin on a 10-yard pass with 1:15 left to give the Panthers the lead only to have Linfield tailback Artie Johnson tie it at 48-48 on a 12-yard run with four seconds left.

Linfield scored first in the first overtime, matched by Hardin’s 17-yard catch of a pass by Vettel. Corona’s reception of Keefe’s pass gave Chapman a 62-55 lead, which was matched when Keegan Weiss completed a 25-yard pass play with Wyatt Smith. Linfield kicked a 26-yard field goal on its next possession, but Chapman running back Tanner Mendoza won it with a 13-yard run on first-and-10 at the Linfield 13. “I saw that we had our tackle out on the left side blocking down the field. I deked the guy inside, went out, put a hand on his face and just trotted into the end zone,” said Mendoza, a sophomore from Ukiah, Calif.

Dan and Julia Wilbanks arrive to watch their son, Chapman offensive lineman Jacob Wilbanks, play against Linfield on Saturday.
Dan and Julia Wilbanks of San Jose were on hand to watch their son, Chapman offensive lineman Jacob Wilbanks, on Saturday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

That set off roars from the enthusiastic crowd and reminded players of the historic nature of their triumph. “I think it really set in for me when I saw all those alumni up in the stands and how excited they were when we won that game,” Keefe said. “I didn’t necessarily know a lot of history behind it.”

Among those alumni was Sam Layton, who played on the Panthers’ 2014 playoff team and was a second-team all-conference linebacker that year. “We’re very proud of these boys. We’re very proud of our coaching staff, very proud of our university and the Chapman football program,” said Layton, who’s now an engineer. “We all played under coach Owens. When he came to this university we turned the page from what we were to what we are.”

Layton, incidentally, earned a master’s degree at Chapman and another at USC. He had no difficulty choosing which game to attend on Saturday. “Even though I went to USC I support Chapman over USC,” he said. “USC is a great university with a long historic program but we believe we are moving in the right direction at Chapman University.”

He made the correct choice as far as impact and entertainment and pure enjoyment. “We’re on top of the world right now,” Mendoza said. “We set goals at the beginning of the season. Hosting a playoff game was one of them, and now we just won one, and it’s the first time in history, first time going undefeated. We are just loving this season, loving each other. It’s honestly just been phenomenal being out there.”


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