GOLDEN — New coach, same standard.
The ultimate goal hasn’t changed for Colorado School of Mines football: national championship or bust.
Under Pete Sterbick, the Orediggers’ third head coach in three years following Gregg Brandon retiring and Brandon Moore taking the head job at San Diego, Mines is undefeated and back as a favorite in the NCAA Division II playoffs after falling in the title game a season ago.
“The culture’s the same and I think it’s gotten even better,” Sterbick said. “The difference is our experience factor has gotten that much better after a five-game playoff run last year. Our mentality on what we want to accomplish is the same as far as the end goal.
“But we have an extra chip on our shoulder with how things ended last year, and we feel like all the time that we have to re-prove ourselves to people. People forget about us, so we’re fired up.”
Mines’ Cinderella carriage turned into a pumpkin in the national title game last year, when Ferris State blasted the Orediggers 41-14 at McKinney ISD Stadium in McKinney, Texas.
But Mines has all the pieces to get back to that same stadium for this year’s championship. The undefeated Orediggers (11-0) have been the top-ranked team in both Division II polls for the latter half of the season, securing a No. 1 seed in the tournament and home-field advantage at Marv Kay Stadium up until the championship.
“When we get it packed in here, I think it’s an intimidating factor for us,” Sterbick said. “And we’re at 5,700 feet, so we love bringing teams from the Midwest out here.”
Their pursuit of the program’s first national title begins Saturday in Golden, where Mines hosts Augustana at noon. The Orediggers boast Division II’s second-ranked scoring offense (51.1 points per game), its fourth-ranked scoring defense (11.5), the reigning Harlon Hill Trophy winner in QB John Matocha and college football’s active sacks leader in outside linebacker Nolan Reeve.
It’s also the fifth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance for Mines, which has “been able to increase the level (of athlete) that we’re looking for” despite the high academic bar to get into the school.
“We’re able to battle (for recruits) against a lot of the FCS schools, especially the Ivies and the Pioneer League,” Sterbick said. “The other part about us versus the Ivies is we’re able to go and battle in the playoffs and for a championship every year, and Ivies don’t do that. That’s a big selling point for us.
“We’ve been able win some (recruiting) battles that I don’t know that we were winning four, five years ago, against even some scholarship FCS schools. That’s what you need to do at the DII level. We’re not going to get a bunch of D-I bounce-backs, we’re not in the portal a lot, that’s pretty minimal. So we’ve got to get kids who have slipped through and who are about it for the right reasons, because you’ve got to be able to make it academically here.”
In Mines’ 82-0 obliteration of Fort Lewis in their regular season finale in Durango two weeks ago, the Orediggers clinched a fifth straight RMAC title while Matocha became college football’s all-time record-holder for total TDs. The QB threw for three scores and ran for another to push his career TD tally to 181, passing the mark of 178 shared by Case Keenum (Houston) and Blaine Hawkins (Central Iowa).
The Orediggers’ offense also established a program record with 798 total yards against Fort Lewis while the defense held the outmatched Skyhawks to negative-33 yards in rushing offense. It was the seventh straight game in which Mines held their opponent under 100 total rushing yards.
“We have great synergy as a team,” Reeve said. “We feed off each other’s momentum. It’s not just one side of the ball doing all the work…. We know everyone is going to give us our best shot, so we’ve got to them give our best shot, too. The defense hasn’t had any low points because we don’t need stress on (Matocha). We need him rolling.”
Redshirt senior Max McLeod is Matocha’s favorite target. He reached 3,000 career receiving yards and 1,000 yards for the season in the win over Fort Lewis. Adding another dimension to the Orediggers’ offense is a two-headed run game featuring Noah Roper and Landon Walker.
Roper, an Erie product, is a graduate transfer from Dartmouth and his 742 rushing yards this season already surpassed his career output in three seasons with the Big Green, while Walker’s in his first full season as tailback after playing in a hybrid tight end/fullback/running back role in 2022.
“I’ve been waiting for this kind of opportunity for my entire college career,” Roper said. “I was originally hoping to transfer to a Power 5 school, but didn’t get that chance. Mines was on my doorstep right away… and I saw what they did in the program last year. I knew I had a chance to come back home, be a part of something special and be close to my family.”
After a first-round bye, Mines is rested and healthy for Augustana, where Sterbick played receiver and punter from 1998 to 2002. But there won’t be any emotions getting in the way for the head coach, and the Orediggers aren’t looking past the Vikings, a physical and disciplined team that’s coming off its first playoff win since 2010.
“I’d like to put up 80 points again, but each week, no matter who we play.. it’s about playing Mines football and playing to our standard. If we’re able to do that, we can come out and play well and dominate,” Matocha said. “The national championship has been the goal since the start, but our motto all year has been 1-0. So there’s no looking past this week.”