VALPARAISO — Valparaiso hasn’t had much success this season.
A year after finishing one game over .500, the Crusaders entered Saturday’s Pioneer Football League matchup against Jacksonville on a three-game losing streak and hadn’t won a game in nearly a month.
But in the team’s last outing this season at Brown Field, Valparaiso clearly didn’t dwell on its underwhelming year. It showed on the very first play from scrimmage that things were different in a 48-30 win on senior day.
With the ball on the 25-yard line, sophomore quarterback Chris Duncan took Valparaiso’s first snap, dropped back and threw a strike across the middle to wide receiver Griffin Norberg. The senior caught the pass in stride and outran the Dolphins secondary for a 75-yard touchdown.
“We wanted to be aggressive early,” Valparaiso coach Dave Cecchini said. “Chris came out and threw great ball, Griffin ran a great route and just played overall an outstanding football game. But I think that really set the tone.”
On Valparaiso’s second drive, Norberg hauled in a 45-yard touchdown pass from Duncan to jump out to a 14-0 lead and continue the team’s fast start. He finished the day with five catches for 173 yards and two touchdowns. His nine receiving scores this season are the most by a Crusaders wide receiver in a decade, and he also moved into 10th place in program history with 1,660 career receiving yards.
“Leaving my mark is everything,” Norberg said. “I like watching these young guys get to start playing now, so I just hope that they can learn from me and just kind of follow in my footsteps. I hope the receivers that come behind me take me out of the top 10 honestly.”
Norberg said he was grateful to have a big performance in the last home game of his career. But if there were any other teammates who truly appreciated picking up a win, it was tight end Mason Sutter and offensive lineman Tom Schofield. Norberg’s fellow seniors are the only two players on Valparaiso’s roster who have played in every game over the past four years.
During that span, Sutter and Schofield were a part of just 13 wins and endured 29 losses. Valparaiso (2-8, 2-5) only had one winning season and never had the opportunity to win a conference championship.
The PFL also doesn’t offer football scholarships, so the appeal of a free education might not draw athletes in, either. But with one game left in their careers, Norberg, Sutter and Schofield don’t regret their decision to become Crusaders. They chose to enroll at Valparaiso because even without some of the success and privileges many other college athletes enjoy, their main goal was simply to keep playing the game they love and improve as much as they could.
“Playing this game (today) brought me back to freshman year at Jacksonville,” Schofield said. “We went there and just got obliterated. I forgot the score, but it was something pretty bad. But I just look back and I’m actually kind of grateful for that. I’m actually kind of grateful that we got our (butts) kicked because we learned from it. It made us a better team.”
Schofield didn’t make any plays that will show up on the stat sheet, but he was still an integral part of Valparaiso’s season-high 48 points. His dominance at the line of scrimmage helped the Crusaders establish an offensive rhythm early behind Norberg’s two scores and keep their momentum going so Sutter could get in on the action as well.
Sutter caught four passes for only 10 yards but did have one touchdown. The senior notched his second score of the season on a trick play early in the third quarter. With the ball on the 2-yard line, Valparaiso backup quarterback Ryan Markoff appeared to be gearing up for a designed quarterback run. But right before he reached the line of scrimmage, Markoff jumped and threw a short pass to Sutter, who slipped behind the defense of Jacksonville (2-7, 1-6) and stood alone in the end zone.
“Everybody bit hard on the fake, and I was left wide open in the back of the end zone,” Sutter said. “I’d say that’s probably the easy (touchdown) I’ve had for my whole career.”
All three seniors had plenty of family and friends in attendance to watch them earn just their second victory of the season, and some of those loved ones even joined them in the postgame press conference — watching from the back of the room with pride. Sutter and Schofield said their families live locally and are usually in the stands at Brown Field. And despite his family being from Sunrise, Florida, Norberg said his father is just as supportive.
“He made a promise to me in high school and said, ‘Every game that you play, I’m going to be there,’” Norberg said. “So he’s been to 40 or 41 games maybe? He’s never missed a game. It means the world to see his face when we come off the field with a win. And I’ll keep saying it.
“Winning at Valpo is better than winning anywhere else.”