Saluting the seniors
by Pat Turner, goUTSA.com contributing writer
SAN ANTONIO — This month has seen seniors from college football teams across the nation play their final game.
However, not many of them can say they helped launch a program like quarterback Eric Soza, running backs Evans Okotcha and CheRod Simpson, defensive end Will Ritter and linebacker Steven Kurfehs did at UTSA.
As they enter their final game today at the Alamodome against Louisiana Tech, they’re leaving with a feeling of accomplishment along with a lifetime of memories.
It began with the “redshirt” season when the Roadrunners spent the entire fall preparing for their inaugural 2011 campaign. The program began as a Football Championship Subdivision independent before moving to the Western Athletic Conference and now Conference USA.
In addition, the Roadrunners have moved from practicing at Northside Independent School District’s Farris Stadium to working out on a new, state-of-the art facility on the Main Campus.
All in all, it has been a successful run.
After going 4-6 in 2011 and 8-4 (4-2 WAC) last season, the Roadrunners come into today’s game with six victories, including five in conference play, and they are on the brink of playing in next Saturday's Conference USA Championship Game.
“It’s been unbelievable,” head coach Larry Coker said. “I think the guys wanted to come to San Antonio, some to come home and others to have an opportunity for a scholarship. Howard Schnellenberger and I talked about players that come back and say it was an awesome experience. That’s what I want for our guys.”
The response has been just like Coker hoped.
“It has been a big blessing to be quarterback of a big-time football team and have influence on people I could never have thought possible,” said Soza, who transferred from Texas State. “It’s been a great opportunity. I think 15 or 20 years from now is when we’re actually going to say ‘Wow, it’s grown this big and we helped build that foundation.’ It’s been special and the past three years have been the best of my life.”
Okotcha, who joined the Roadrunners following a stint at Portland State, is leaving with the same feelings.
“This is an experience not a lot of people go through,” he said. “It has been fun working with these guys because our chemistry is off the charts. It has been a really good ride.”
Like Soza and Okotcha, the other three signed with other colleges out of high school, but they decided to transfer after their freshman season to a place with better opportunities.
With the exception of Simpson, all five hailed from high schools in Texas.
Simpson, a native of Oakland, Calif., spent his first season at Texas A&M-Commerce, but he wanted to play at the NCAA Division I level.
UTSA offered that chance and more for all of them.
“I had never heard of UTSA before, but I wanted to give it a try,” Simpson said. “I wanted to be part of a start-up program because everyone was young. I knew this program was going to be great. We had good athletes and great coaches who would teach us the right things.”
The best thing about the entire situation is that all five have contributed.
Soza has engineered the offense since day one with his steady passing touch and leadership, while Okotcha and Simpson also have been a big part of the offense.
Kurfehs and Ritter have done the job on defense.
Reaching the current pinnacle didn’t come easy, especially that first season when UTSA had no games.
Going against one another week after week was a grind, but the Roadrunners kept their focus on the big picture.
Looking back, they believe that first year was valuable in preparing them for the future.
“I didn’t play a football game for two years,” said Ritter, who redshirted his freshman year at Western Illinois. “That was difficult, but we all gutted it out. Looking back, it made us better because we became closer as a team.”
The rewards followed, starting with the debut in 2011 when UTSA defeated Northeastern State, 31-3, before a packed Alamodome crowd of 56,743. Playing in that type of atmosphere was all the reassurance they needed in realizing the hard work was worth it and all five had their moments in the victory.
Soza scored the first touchdown in program history on a 14-yard scamper and passed for two more. Simpson caught UTSA’s first pass and finished the game with three receptions for 22 yards. Okotcha snagged a pass and also showed his knack for blocking. Kurfehs recorded eight tackles and Ritter came up with two.
“That was probably my greatest memory,” Ritter said. “I was accustomed to playing before large crowds in high school (at Odessa Permian), but this was electrifying. Talk about butterflies. It was special being involved in the first game. We can tell our kids we were involved in that.”
It was extra special for Kurfehs, who played in the Alamodome a few times during his days at O’Connor High School, but UTSA’s opener was a totally different experience.
“It made everything we went through that first year worth it,” said Kurfehs, who returned home after a year at Eastern New Mexico. “I had never seen anything like that crowd. It was so loud and my teammates couldn’t hear me make the calls on defense. It still gives me goose bumps thinking about it.”
It’s only become better as the Roadrunners have accomplished a great deal in a short period of time.
For those who have made it happen, the success is not shocking. It fits more in the pleasantly surprised category.
"Looking back, it’s been incredible to see the progress we have made,” Kurfehs said. “We’re not little kids anymore. Everyone came in here with a chip on their shoulder because a lot of us were one- or two-star recruits and the bigger schools didn’t think we were big or fast enough to play. It made us work harder and prove people wrong. It lit a fire under us.”
Now, the seniors believe the foundation is set for the future.
“It’s like we were a caterpillar at first and became this beautiful butterfly,” Simpson said. “Nobody really knew about us, but now everyone knows us. It’s going to be cool to come back in 20 years and see how this program has grown.”
UTSA's other seniors suting up for the final time this afternoon are Cody Berry, Brandon Guerrero, Jarron Harris, Cole Hicks and Jeremiah Moeller.