This season hasn't gone anything like the Colorado Mesa football team expected. Injuries took their toll early, forcing even more young players into crucial roles.
Penalties, missed assignments and especially turnovers have plagued the Mavericks (4-5, 4-4 RMAC), who play their final road game of the season Saturday at Adams State (4-5, 4-4).
"It's frustrating because we know we've got a good football team, we know we've got good players," CMU coach Russ Martin said. "It's a standpoint of playing more consistent, and we have to be able to capitalize and help each other out. When one group had momentum be able to feed off that momentum. If one side is struggling,the other side has to step up and create that momentum for us. We haven't been able to fully solve that yet."
But the Mavericks haven't let the frustration over losing close games and late leads keep them from working to keep improving, from the seniors to the freshmen.
"It's all just having a will to win and looking to the dude on your right and your left and saying 'I want to do this for you guys,' " said redshirt freshman running back Jesse Rodriquez,who has rushed for 341 yards and two touchdowns this season, the primary backup to Isaac Maestas.
"It's just a will to win. It starts in the weight room every day, grinding and practicing and the mindset before the game, getting your mind right and wanting to win every down. That's the mindset we have going into games."
For the young players, this is just the start of their careers. The seniors are facing the end of theirs, and they're also trying to set the foundation for the future.
"We just tell them it's one day at a time," senior defensive lineman Reed Rowan said. "Go to practice, do your best. Go to weights, do your best. Get in the classroom, make sure you're doing your assignments. It's starting one day at a time throughout the week and when we get to Saturday,we put all that hard work we've put in throughout the week.
"Everyone's bought into it. Everyone knows, Jesse knows, everyone younger and older knows. For the seniors, this is the last ride. They know this is their last stop. If they get a chance to play, great, if not, they know they put in the work, they know they did everything they could to get those good grades, to get that good job that they're going to get after this."
The Mavericks haven't won back-to-back games all season, something they'll have to do to finish above .500. Martin addressed that Monday morning with the players.
"I was looking at the record books and 1985 to 1990, I think was the only time in our football history there have been six winning seasons in a row," he said. "We can do that if we win these last two games. I don't think that's been done since we became a Division II school. Again, there are some great things out in front of us and we know our best performance is still out in front."
Colorado Mesa has been outmanned in a couple of games — against Colorado Mines and CSU-Pueblo, two teams that are in line for playoff spots. Despite falling behind 28-0 to the ThunderWolves, the Mavericks rallied after the first quarter and made a game of it, then carried it over in a 58-21 thrashing of Black Hills State, a game many players and Martin called their most complete game of the season.
And they appeared to have figured it out when they got up 21-7 at Dixie State last week, but then gave up 21 straight points, had a couple of crucial penalties, then gave up an 81-yard touchdown run and a late, time-consuming drive that clinched the Trailblazers' 42-32 win.
"If you were down in the locker room one of the things you could find out is they play hard for each other," Martin said. "That's what you want to happen. You always want to win. Unfortunately in college football on Saturday you get up and at the end of the day somebody's going to win, somebody's going to lose. It's a very fine line."
Without a championship or the chance of a playoff game to play for, Martin said, it does present a challenge.
"One of the big things we always talk about in any kind of sport, it's a standpoint that a season is part of a journey, every single time we get ready to come back out, we've got to learn, we've got to grow and we've got to get better. Whether you win or lose, that's what it continues to be," he said.
"Is there naturally more momentum when you're playing for a championship? I think so, I think that's part of the natural progression of things, but also when you look at the true measure of a person, the surrounding circumstances don't really affect who you are as a person.
"Guys just continue to work hard, to get better, and that's what we're asking. It is a journey and we've got some great opportunities out in front of us."