There were sure to be plenty of firsts for the Eagles, but few could have expected that to include a Mid-South Conference West Division title.
A few days after the season ended, Reinhardt added a few more superlatives.
Coach Danny Cronic was named the Mid-South West coach of the year after leading his team to a 6-4 finish. There were also seven Eagles named to the all-conference team when the honors were announced Wednesday afternoon.
Cronic, a longtime high school coach, had never before been a head coach at the college level — making the honor even more impressive. The Eagles were ranked in the NAIA coaches’ poll for a portion of the season and received votes in the final edition of the poll.
Cronic considered the honor a reflection of his entire staff, some of whom are volunteers.
“It’s real impressive,” Cronic said. “They had to recognize what we are doing and how hard we were working. I think they honored us greatly. It’s a staff award, too. It’s not just coach Cronic. It’s the summing up of the staff. I guess they are recognizing that we have some good people to work with.”
Among the players honored by the conference was L.J. Stegall, who was named the Offensive Freshman of the Year for the West Division.
In nine games, Stegall scored a conference-best 17 touchdowns, three of which came on kickoff returns. He also led the Mid-South in all-purpose yards per game with 162.
Stegall was named to the all-conference team for the West Division, along with linebacker Jarred Johnson, offensive lineman Clay Swint and defensive lineman Tevin McCoy.
Johnson led the Eagles in tackles (81) and McCoy finished with 15½ tackles for loss and four sacks despite missing two games. Swint was a key part of the offensive line, allowing just one sack and helping Reinhardt’s running backs tally more than 2,600 yards on the season.
Among the players named to the second team were tight end Chris Johnson, who also played a key role as a blocker, offensive lineman Nick Lawson and defensive back Travis Nunley. Nunley had two touchdowns on the season — one on a kickoff return and the other on an interception return.
Cronic said he was surprised by how many of his players were recognized — not because they weren’t talented, but because they were young and new to the conference.
“I was surprised by the amount of respect the other coaches showed us,” Cronic said. “That made us feel awfully good.”
Cronic said that having so many players honored sets the bar high for next season.
“But that’s OK,” he said. “We wanted it anyway.”
While there aren’t any more games to play, Cronic said everyone is still hard at work. He’s conducting end-of-season conferences with each of his 160 players, recruiting for next year is under way and the players are undergoing physical evaluations. Camps are being planned, as well as tryouts.
“Most all of our work is aimed at recruiting right now,” Cronic said.
Other highlights from the first season of Reinhardt football:
ON THE ROAD: Reinhardt played five away games and, on four of those occasions, spent the night prior to the game out of town.
Each time the Eagles stayed in a hotel the night before they played, they won. The only setback was when they made the two-hour trip south to Macon for their season-opening game at Mercer
“I think the togetherness and the structure helps,” Cronic said. “Mercer, we left the same day and they slept on campus, but I’m beginning to see why big programs, even when they have a home game, take them to a hotel the night before. You get a lot of focus in there.”
BIGGEST MOMENT: Looking back on the season, Cronic said his greatest moment was when the Eagles upset Faulkner.
At the time, Faulkner was No. 23 in the NAIA coaches’ poll, and Reinhardt had yet to receive any votes.
“The biggest win of the season was over at Faulkner,” Cronic said. “There is no question. We may have caught them at a good time, but we played well. That would be the biggest moment.”
BIGGEST SUPRISE: Cronic said he was most struck by the number of injuries the players suffered, and how Reinhardt still found ways to win.
The Eagles used nine different fullbacks during the season because they were so often injured. More than half of the players projected to start at the beginning of the season missed at least one game with injury. Several missed the majority of the season.
At one point, Reinhardt was forced to start third-string quarterback Dylan Haynes, the former Cherokee High School starter, after the two quarterbacks ahead of him in the depth chart were both injured.
“Generally, someone stepped up and pulled at the slack,” Cronic said. “Someone stepped up to the plate and did well. That was really great.”
MAKING CRONIC PROUD: Cronic is most proud of winning the West Division title, but he admits that he had never coached a game like the season finale at Campbellsville, when Reinhardt totaled nearly 800 yards of offense.
“I’ve never had that,” he said. “It wasn’t like we could take the foot off the gas. We had to keep going. Offensively, we played really well in that ballgame.”
IN CLOSING: If Cronic can take one positive away from missing out on the playoffs, it’s that the team was able to end the season win a victory.
After all, only one team in the playoffs will end the season with a win.
“Any time you win the last game, you get to soak on that for the whole year,” Cronic said. “This is unique and very positive. Don’t read it that we wouldn’t rather be in the playoffs, but at least there is a positive. It’s going to look pretty good on the banner ‘West Division Champions of the Mid-South Conference.’”