SFA overcomes challenging 2022 to win WAC title.

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ABILENE - Abilene Christian was excited about hosting the game that would determine the 2022 champion in the Western Athletic Conference. Maybe a little too excited.

The Wildcats released some hype videos last week to try and build excitement and drive turnout for the program’s biggest game since transitioning to FCS in 2013. However, one video hit a nerve with Stephen F. Austin.

The offending video was released last Sunday and had one ACU player say, “SFA, you’re next.” Lumberjacks coach Colby Carthel seized on the bulletin board material.

“It was just to get them stirred up and focused on practice a little more this week,” Carthel said. “As coaches, you use everything you can get, but none of that really matters once kickoff happens. It helped our focus a little throughout the week.”

Carthel got the reaction he wanted from his players, and SFA took home the WAC title with a 24-21 win over the Wildcats.

“We did get a little comfortable and a little lackadaisical. But when (ACU) put that video out saying ‘SFA you next,’ coach Carthel played that every day at practice,” SFA wide receiver Xavier Gipson said. “We hated that sound and hated everything about that video, so we pushed each other to go harder.”

Gipson was flat dominating against ACU, torching the Wildcats defense for 213 yards and a touchdown on 11 receptions. He accounted for 53.7 percent of the ‘Jacks 397 passing yards while facing a tough and physical man-to-man defense all day.

“He was on a mission,” Carthel said. “He dealt with a lot of tampering during the offseason, but there are still good souls in this world. That young man turned down a lot of money to stay here, get his degree, and win a championship with his teammates and brothers. That’s what college football is about - there’s still good in a crazy world.”

It is notable that Gipson returned to SFA after the NCAA began allowing athletes to make money off the use of their Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL). He will now own a championship ring thanks to his decision to remain loyal to the ‘Jacks program.

“It means everything to win the WAC title,” Gipson said. “From the 2-8 season when coach Carthel first took over and played 32 freshmen that year. Then we had the CoVID year. We wanted to build off what we did last year, but we’ve had some tough losses. This title means a lot to us.”

It has been quite a journey for SFA since Carthel took over following the 2018 season. His tenure with the Lumberjacks began with an academic scandal left over from the previous regime. As a result, SFA had multiple players removed from the bus before departing to play Baylor to start the 2019 season.

“It’s hard to win in college football, and this program has been through so much,” Carthel said. “We had suspensions and a major infraction case with scholarship reductions in 2019. Then we had the CoVID year, where we played five money games. We played more FBS games than any other FCS program in the last four years.”

SFA entered the season ranked inside the top 10 in nearly every preseason poll and was a cinderella pick to make a run in the FCS playoffs. Unfortunately, those expectations were too enthusiastic for a team losing multiple coaches and players from its defense.

“It’s been a very trying year,” Carthel said. “There were some big expectations based on how we finished last year, but we lost seven FBS and NFL-caliber players on defense. We had eight new coaches on our staff, and we were preseason top 10. But that wasn’t who we were, and then we had a lot of negative press about this team.”

The murmurs around the program grew louder following two losses at Homer Bryce Stadium, where the ‘Jacks had been tough to beat under Carthel.

“This team kept coming to work. We didn’t play like we wanted the last two games leading into this week, but the bottom line is these guys are champions, and they deserve this championship,” Carthel said. “We’ve been punched in the gut over and over and over for four years, and these guys just kept getting up off the mat, and that’s what champions do. Champions don’t always stay on their feet, and we’ve been knocked down by a few punches, but these guys kept fighting and are now champions for life.”

Despite the challenges SFA faced during the 2022 season, they continued to play hard for Carthel and his staff. Which is a testament to the loyalty this team shares from the top down.

“We have a sign leading into our facility that says, ‘Those who stay will be champions,’ and this group stayed here and are now champions.”

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