SALEM, Va. – Mount Union defensive end Michael Vidal still remembers what it felt like to walk off the field in Belton following last year’s 14-12 loss to Mary Hardin-Baylor in the NCAA Division III semifinals. For a proud program that had 19 Stagg Bowl appearances and 12 national championships in its memory banks, it was unfamiliar feeling for the Purple Raiders.
“It affected us in a great way. It motivated us in the offseason to hit the weight room and work harder in everything that we did,” said Vidal, a 6-foot-4, 235 pound end who has seven sacks this season to push his career total to 25. “Having that in the back of our mind that we didn’t make it all the way, it showed us that it’s not a guaranteed thing. You have to work at it, and we took pride in doing the extra stuff to get back.”
Indeed, No. 2 Mount Union (14-0) is back in the Stagg Bowl for the 20th time and will take on No. 1 and defending national champion UMHB (14-0) at 6 p.m. Friday in Salem Stadium.
It is Vidal’s third trip to the title game – the Purple Raiders beat St. Thomas his sophomore year and lost to Wisconsin-Whitewater his freshman season – and Mount Union’s almost annual pilgrimage to Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains is why Vidal left sunny Florida after high school in favor of frigid Alliance, Ohio.
“Mount Union saw my film and really wanted me. I didn’t know who they were, but my high school coach told me they were like the Alabama of Division III,” said Vidal, a product of Reagan High School in Doral, Fla. “I researched it and saw that it was a great program with a great coaching staff. I took a visit and loved it from there, but it was a learning experience to get through winter.
“Really, it was a learning experience all the way around once I got there. Before you go through a full season and offseason at Mount Union, you think you’re going to be able to get going immediately, but there’s a process to it. You have to understand that even though you were a highly ranked high school player, you have to improve once you get here. You have to get your skills better, and you have to create plays.”
Vidal began making plays once he earned a starting role as a sophomore, and he hasn’t stopped since. On a defense that limits opponents to 253 yards and 14 points per game, he’s a key component despite facing constant double-teams.
“The coaches find a way to humble us all the time. We have a lot of players, so the depth chart changes every single day. You have to constantly compete because nobody is a guaranteed starter,” he said. “The majority of our coaches came through Mount Union, so they know how to keep us level-headed and hungry to keep performing well.
“It’s about always doing the little basic things that have gotten me to this point, knowing that I’m going to get double-teamed and knowing that I have to get my motor going. I can’t take any plays off. I have to try to play through the double-teams.”
The resolve of Vidal and the rest of the Purple Raiders was put to the test last week, when they trailed 35-10 in the third quarter of a frozen semifinal at UW-Oshkosh. What ensued was a remarkable comeback in which Mount Union scored 33 of the game’s final 38 points to rescue a 43-40 victory that sent the Purple Raiders to Salem for the 16th time in the last 18 years.
“Down 35-10, you look at the scoreboard and try to find ways that you can impact the game. My thought was, ‘I can’t score touchdowns and do those types of things. I just have to do my job and make sure the guy beside me does his job and keep doing that on every drive,’” Vidal said. “When it was 35-10, we said that we had to get a stop and we did. Then we did that again and again, and the offense started scoring and we fed off their energy. You can’t look at one guy and say that he won it. It took our whole team coming together and pulling it out.
“It tested our team morale. Games like that let you know what your teammates are going to do when things get tough and it looks like you’re going to lose the game. It was a huge confidence boost for us.”
Now the Purple Raiders get another shot at the Crusaders, whose semifinal wins in 2004 and last season mark the only times Mount Union didn’t advance to the Stagg Bowl over the last 18 years.
“You keep it in your head that they’re the team that beat us last year. They know us and we know them,” Vidal said. “You have to just come out and play your best.”
Vidal and the Purple Raiders have never had a problem doing that.