Last Saturday in Daytona Beach, Fla., the Southern Michigan Timberwolves pulled out a 25-24 stunner over the New York Rebels in the National Football Events Palm Bowl for the AAA National Championship.“When I was brought in as a head coach two years ago, my one goal was a league championship and a national championship,” Timberwolves head coach Don Butynski told Developmental Football USA.
Butynski achieved both of those goals this season with a Minor League Football Alliance Championship in the fall, topped off with the Palm Bowl win last weekend.
“This one is special,” Butynski said. “As good as it feels to me, which is amazing, it feels even better to be able to help the people who have sacrificed year in and year out, whether they have been here for one year or 170 games like Troy Rizzuto.
“We also have very loyal people within this organization who have been here for many years, so this is an extremely special moment for all involved. I am very happy that this organization has trusted my decision making and helped me stay the course.”
The Timberwolves got on the scoreboard first on a 6-yard touchdown run by running back Michael Youngblood with 5:17 left in the first quarter, but a missed extra point kept the score 6-0.
Then, late in the second quarter, quarterback Kyle Lieckfelt found wide receiver Jose Cannon in the end zone for another touchdown with 10 seconds left until halftime. Another missed extra point kept the Timberwolves lead 12-0 heading into the locker room.
The Rebels weren’t ready to let the AAA National Championship slip away as quarterback Dave Legree led a scoring drive on the opening possession of the second half – which he capped off with a 9-yard touchdown strike – to chip away at the lead. However, Timberwolves defensive back Dre Martin blocked the extra point to make the score 12-6 in favor of Southern Michigan.
“The Rebels may have been the most athletic team we faced all year,” Butynski said. “Their quarterback was no doubt the best we saw. His maturity, size and talent were a handful.”
The Timberwolves’ offense was unable to respond and gave the ball back to the Revels, who tied the game 12-12 with a 17-yard run by their running back with 3:06 left in the third quarter. A Rebels missed extra point prevented them from taking the lead.
“Their running back, who also played receiver, was smaller in stature, but was extremely competitive with extraordinary talent,” Butynski said. “He was probably the best skill player we have seen all year. He even made plays on defense.”
Youngblood and Lieckfelt helped get the Timberwolves offense rolling again late in the third quarter and Youngblood punched in his second touchdown of the day on a 1-yard run to open up the fourth quarter. Kicker Kyle Galbraith punched the game’s first and only extra point through the uprights to grab a 19-12 lead with 14:58 left in the game.
“The game was done in typical Southern Michigan Timberwolves fashion,” Butynski said. “We never make anything easy, but that’s what makes it all the more special, I think.”
The Legree-led Rebels marched down the field and answered with a 37-yard touchdown pass, but the Timberwolves defense shut down a two-point attempt to hang onto a one-point lead, 19-18.
“Our defensive coordinator Rob Streeter made some very key adjustments and had to constantly adjust to the many weapons of the Rebels, but that is why I brought him here,” Butynski said. “That is why I trust him. This victory was a testament to the heart of this organization and all involved.”
The Timberwolves failed to put up more points on their ensuing possession, then the defense allowed the Rebels to take their first lead of the game, giving up a one-yard touchdown run on fourth down to lead 24-19 with 8:28 left in the game. The Rebels two-point attempt was again denied by the Timberwolves defense.
“We knew that we absolutely needed to score on the following drive and our offense, led by quarterback Kyle Lieckfelt and offensive coordinator Ben Sikora, put together a drive that would last six minutes,” Butynski said.
Time stood still as the Timberwolves faced their biggest fourth down of the year. With the pressure closing in and no sure-throws open, quarterback Kyle Lieckfelt tucked the football and scrambled his way in from six yards out for the go-ahead touchdown.
“We had to go for two points, knowing that one would only put us up by two and a field goal could win the Rebels the game,” Butynski said.
The Rebels defense stood strong and denied the two-point conversion. Legree took the field again with less than two minutes to go and everything on the line.
“On fourth down, with 11 seconds left in the game and 20 yards go for a touchdown, our defense did what they have done all season when the game is on the line and that is stand tall and finish,” Butynski said.
The win wasn’t just big for the players, but for everyone who has helped this organization since 1994 to become what it is today.
“I played for the Timberwolves as a player from 2004-2007 and developed many great friendships here,” Butynski said. “It’s the best feeling in the world to help these guys accomplish such a great goal that has eluded this organization for 23 years.”
The one-point win was the closest margin of victory for any National Champion at this year’s National Bowl Weekend.
“They were a very solid team and deserving to play in this game,” Butynski said. “If they weren’t the toughest team we faced, they sure were equal to the ones that were, such as the Tri-County Braves, West Michigan Force and Toledo Thunder.”
Sikora has implemented a scheme that gets many skill players involved, so the team doesn’t have to rely on one or two guys to carry the load, and this season it proved to be very successful.
“You can make a case for many of these guys,” Butynski said. “Quarterback Kyle Lieckfelt runs the offense with fluidity and confidence, but Alonzo Nedd had to step in for a game this year and came out with a win also. Michael Youngblood has been a workhorse at running back all year and Charles Boyce is notably a threat anywhere on the field, with multiple MVP awards, but wasn’t a focal point like he had been in the past. Parker Henneman, Jose Cannon and Terrance Tumpkin are all extremely talented wide recievers and all with completely different skill sets.
“Tony Rizzuto, our tight end and fullback does a lot of the dirty work that others can’t get done and our offensive linemen are a group of unselfish guys who really enjoy playing the position. This doesn’t even include guys like Mike McKinley, Mike Batwinas and Alonzo Nedd, who also plays wide receiver and tight end.”
The Timberwolves defense was also very solid all around, and like championship defenses at this level, played with strong chemistry all season.
“Every man holds importance and value,” Butynski said. “Guys like free safety Chavis Hamby and linebacker Mark Carter are leaders on and off the field and have been doing it for like nine years straight. Derek Tate and Ernie Smith – age 42 and the leading tackler on the team – have been a consistent force at linebacker all year. Defensive back Dre Martin (DB) has blocked more punts and kicks than I can count on both hands and feet, not to mention his ability to play the cornerback position, opposite Chuck Littleton.
“We have so many guys that buy in that are talented and unselfish that I can’t pinpoint core guys. I can tell you the defensive line is our strength. Guys like Jakendall Brown, Jack Echols, Jayson Cummings, D.J. Jones, Ant Johnson, Gary Brown, Jeff White and many more that I could name have gotten the job done all year for us. Even guys that couldn’t make the trip like Darryn Moore and Remy Murphy were extremely valuable.”