Having only begun this job in March, my history covering the University of Redlands football program is not long. Seven games.

But even for a newbie, it’s hard to imagine the Bulldogs in recent years having a bigger, more memorable victory than its last one against Chapman.

Redlands 28, Chapman 24. And I can’t say I saw that coming when the Panthers bolted to a 14-0 lead against Redlands before a listless homecoming crowd.

The seeds of victory against Chapman did not begin with a 16-yard touchdown pass from quarterback and Yucaipa High grad Nathan Martinez to Evan Aguon to finally get the Bulldogs on the scoreboard.

No, this was a triumph born more than a year ago when at least seven key Bulldog seniors with eligibility remaining decided to play as graduate students. They are: Offensive linemen Nathan Abelon of San Bernardino; Calhoun Helmberger of Tacoma, Wash.; and Anthony Vargas of Grand Terrace; wide receiver Kai Kang of Seattle, Wash.; defensive end Brandon Serrano of Chino; linebacker Jacob Harrold of Lake Havasu, Ariz.; and the irrepressible Martinez.

Returning to the grind was difficult for all, but worth it – judging by the emotions the players expressed after defeating Chapman. The victory was also huge for the Bulldog coaching staff.

“It feels awesome for our staff and our fifth-year guys,” said Redlands interim coach Jim Good. “The amount of work and what they’ve done during the past year-plus has been unbelievable. Keeping everybody together through COVID – it says a lot about our staff and our older guys.”

For those not present, the Bulldogs outscored Chapman 21-10 during the middle of the game to claw their way back into contention. But they still trailed 24-21 with 5:21 left and needed Martinez to drive the team 67 yards for a score. No problem.

San Jacinto High grad Noah Widgins dived across the goal line for the game-winner with 2:40 left. Following a tense Chapman foray downfield, Redlands celebrated. Oh, how they celebrated.

It was bedlam at Ted Runner Stadium as the homecoming crowd roared its approval. One Bulldog mom tweeted days later that her voice still hadn’t recovered.

The victory put Redlands on the cusp of a Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference title. Only bottom feeders Whittier on Saturday, Nov. 6, and visiting California Lutheran a week later remain on the Bulldogs’ conference schedule.

The journey was worth it, said outside linebacker Harrold who is studying to obtain his master of business administration (MBA).

“COVID took away my official senior year and there was a choice to be made on whether to come back,” Harrold said. “This win really solidifies [my decision] and gives me closure.”

Kang was recruited by Redlands from the Seattle area. His parents, Christi and Mike, journey from the Emerald State to Southern California to watch every game.

“It’s an indescribable feeling,” Kang said of the Chapman game. “All of the work we’ve put in during the COVID year and to have this be our last home night game, it really means a lot to us. There was no doubt in my mind, even when it was 14-0, that we were going to win.

How did they do it? Key defender Serrano, out of Chino High, has a theory.

“It was the camaraderie and the Bulldog brotherhood,” Serrano said. “It’s unlike anything else. I got a taste of what it’s like to be out in the real world, working … especially with COVID my senior year. This is something that you can’t get anywhere else. I didn’t want to look back in life and say that I didn’t give it a shot.”

Leader that he is, Martinez looked outside himself and described what the victory meant for the coaching staff.

“There’s a lot of emotion right now because I know how much effort these coaches have put forth and the amount of pressure they’ve had,” Martinez said. “We’re a little understaffed and people are doing extra jobs. And then with all these fifth-year guys that came back to hopefully win the SCIAC championship, winning put us in the driver’s seat for that.”

Vargas, from nearby Grand Terrace, is also happy for the coaches. And for himself.

“It’s the coach’s first win against Chapman, so I’m excited for him,” he said. “And it’s my fifth year, so I’m going out with a bang.”

John Murphy may be reached at jmurphy@redlandscommunitynews.com.

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