Four years ago, Dave Cecchini knew the challenge he faced in becoming Valparaiso University’s football coach.
“We knew coming in that Valparaiso was not going to be the easiest place to win a championship,” he said. “They’d only won three games in the prior four years. It’s more competitive in the classroom than most schools out there.
“That all boiled down to the attitude that we wanted our players to take.”
Cecchini said he wanted to instill a mentality that would help his players handle all of the challenges facing VU’s program and turn it into a winning product.
He’s accomplished that in 2017. VU finished 6-5, the program’s first winning season since 2003, and Cecchini was named the 2017 Pioneer Football League Coach of the Year.
“It’s a validation of all the hard work our staff has put in,” Cecchini said. “It’s not just an individual honor. I could not have done it without a great group of assistants. It’s a sign that you’re headed in the right direction, but it’s not the final goal.”
The Crusaders finished tied for third in the league, far exceeding preseason expectations. VU was picked by the league’s coaches to finish 10th among 11 teams in the preseason poll.
Junior linebacker Nick Turner pointed out that poll as being an inspiration for the team.
“That lit a spark in a lot of people,” Turner said. “The year before that, we beat (league teams) Stetson and Jacksonville and Davidson. We’re nowhere near where we wanted to be, but we thought we’d be ranked higher than the three teams we beat.”
Turner was one of three VU players named to second team all-league. Sophomore return specialist Bailey Gessinger was selected for the second straight season, and junior offensive lineman Tom Schofield also was honored.
“I wasn’t even expecting to win that,” Schofield said. “There are so many other linemen from Valpo who deserved that. I have to give this honor to the rest of my linemen. I couldn’t have done it without them.”
Both Schofield and Turner pointed to the team’s 2016 win over Jacksonville in the season finale as a turning point for the program. Turner added that Valpo was brimming with confidence heading into their Nov. 11 game at Butler.
“I had no doubt in my mind that we were going to bring that (Hoosier Helmet Trophy) back,” Turner said. “And I knew my teammates felt the same way.”
That winning attitude has swept through every part of the program, and Cecchini is setting the bar even higher for 2018.
“We have to understand that getting to 6-5 is rewarding because Valparaiso hasn’t experienced that since 2003,” Cecchini said. “But we expect to continue moving the program forward.
“Being a 6-5 football team is not the goal next year. It’s to challenge for that PFL championship.”
Dave Melton is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.