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Colorado School of Mines digs deep for Division II football title. Can tough academics make a tough team?

Jeffrey Grigsby / EyeEm/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — Players on some well-known football teams have stickers on their helmets, awarded for standout in-game performances. Buckeye decals decorate Ohio State helmets. Florida State Seminoles proudly sport tomahawks. The stickers adorning helmets of the Colorado School of Mines’ Orediggers show off a different kind of performance: they list the players’ academic majors.

It’s one of the many quirky ways this team of nerds, a label the school embraces, stands apart. But it has something in common with much better-known big schools. The Orediggers have dominated their conference, and they will play Saturday for the Division II national championship against Harding University.

Up until three years ago, when this challenging school for future scientists and engineers started achieving national football success, it came as a surprise even to people in the school’s hometown of Golden, Colorado, that Mines (its short name as preferred by the school) fielded a team. According to Mines assistant athletic director Tim Flynn, “Before this run, I mean, even just locally, even in town, people would be like, ‘They have a football team? Like seriously?'”

Now the school is well known there as a place, according to its athletic department motto, “Where Nerds Win.”

Indeed, they do. The Orediggers are ranked at the top of Division II — which comprises mostly smaller universities allowed to offer only partial scholarships. The team has won five consecutive Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference titles and have beaten opponents this season with lopsided scores like 70-7, 52-0 and 77-3. But the team is competitive far beyond its conference, as proven by its deep runs in recent division playoffs.

“If they don’t win it this year, I would be completely surprised,” Shawn Kenney, who calls Division II games for ESPN, told ABC News.

And those helmet labels featuring majors such as Metallurgical Engineering, Quantitative Biosciences, and Geological Engineering help explain the team’s success. Kenney points out that, “If you’re in these degrees at Mines, you know these students are disciplined. You know they’re incredibly intelligent. You know they’re focused on hard work.”

Head coach Pete Sterbick adds, “I don’t think a lot of football cultures draw from academic rigor to make their football team better. But that’s the biggest driver of this place. Our kids bond over how hard school is.”

The team’s star quarterback John Matocha, whose helmet bears a Computer Science sticker, agrees that tough academics toughens and motivates the team.

“It’s exciting to be able to do both, to excel in both, you know, on the field and in the classroom,” Matocha told ABC News. As if to illustrate the ever-present challenges of doing “both,” he revealed that this week, as the Orediggers head to Texas for Saturday’s championship game, “a lot of guys on the team, including myself, we’re taking finals on the road. We’re getting a proctor at our hotel to finish up finals week.”

Matocha’s exam subject: Bioinformatics. Don’t ask.

But serious academics do not mean the team’s approach is all serious. The Orediggers mascot is Blaster the Burro, a real donkey who runs the field in Mines gear after touchdowns. Their logo is a fierce-looking cartoon Blaster, ready to charge with a stick of dynamite in its jaws. Meanwhile, the school’s marching band wears miners’ hardhats and flannel jackets.

Coach Sterbick believes football is a release for his hardworking players, noting that “when they come to football, it’s like a break for them and they just have a blast. And it creates a really big love for football.”

“Everybody here is a total nerd,” Flynn says. “But when it comes to football, like, we flip the switch and it’s really fun.”

It also helps that the Orediggers have potentially pro-level talent. So far, 23 NFL teams have come to Golden to scout Matocha and his teammates. “I definitely will be giving the pro level a go,” Matocha tells ABC News. “I would love to get the opportunity to play at the next level.”

The quarterback is the leading touchdown producer in all of college football history. Matocha broke the career record for passing touchdowns this past weekend with 161 and holds the total touchdown record — including passing and rushing — with 190 scores. Last year, he won the Harlon Hill Award, the division’s version of the Heisman Trophy, for the best player in the division and is a finalist again this year.

Meanwhile, Senior Levi Johnson won the award for best lineman in DII. Plus, the team is loaded with All Conference and All-American players.

One reason for this concentration of talent: Mines has created a “recruiting pipeline” to Texas, a breeding ground for some of the nation’s best football players, including Matocha, who is from Houston.

“I think we have 45 kids from Texas,” says Coach Sterbick. “It’s the industry part of it with oil and gas.” With petroleum and mechanical engineering among the most popular majors on the team, Kenney explains that players “get to come back home where there’s a ton of jobs in Texas that suit the engineering specialists Mines produces.”

The school’s career center puts the average starting salary of a Mines graduate at $84,400, a lure for prospects and another advantage for the team: players don’t leave.

“We can retain players,” Flynn says. “There’s so much talk about the transfer portal, and the negative aspect of the transfer portal on college football. We’re the antithesis of that. We don’t lose anybody in the transfer portal. The guys stay here for the education, stay for the football. They love the culture; they love the team.” He adds, “It’s a smart business decision to stick around.”

While the Orediggers progress has been trending sharply upward in the past five years, the team has been playing since 1888 and settled into its current stadium, dramatically nestled in the foothills of Mt. Zion, in 1892.

Kenney predicts the team’s recent history foretells its future. “I can only imagine the more success they have, the more attention that they have received the last few years, why wouldn’t it continue to grow? This is not a blip on the radar. They are established and they are proven.”

Though Mines may be favored, Saturday’s title game will be no “gimme.” Harding is another Division II powerhouse, going into the game undefeated this season, just like the Orediggers. The game kicks off at 1 p.m. Eastern on ESPNU.

 

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