EXCELSIOR SPRINGS, Mo. - The Southwest Minnesota State football team will take the field in its first bowl game of any kind - the 48th Mineral Water Bowl - today.
With that, it's a historical day to be a Mustang - as a player, as a coach, as alumni and as a fan.
SMSU, 7-4 overall this season, placed fourth in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference standings. When the top three NSIC teams - Minnesota State, Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud State - made the NCAA Division II Football Super Region 3 playoffs, it allowed the Mustangs to face NCAA Division II powerhouse Pittsburg State, Kan., (9-2) in the Mineral Water Bowl.
The game, which kicks off at 12 p.m., will take place at Tiger Stadium and is located on the campus of Excelsior Springs High School.
Speaking with several Mustangs, the SMSU players are excited to competing in - for most of them - the only bowl game of their football careers.
"For a lot of us, this is our senior season and this what we expected to be doing playing in the postseason this year," Southwest Minnesota State center Brandon Puffer said. "We have approached every game this year, knowing we can win. We have great players, we are confident and we are all very excited to be in this position."
Most of SMSU players have competed in football for more than a decade, but they still feel a rush of adrenaline every time the put on their pads, especially for a bowl game.
"I think this game is going to be more intense than usual. It's going to get my nerves going that's for sure," Mustang safety Tate Bunkers said. "Even though I am a senior and I have been playing this sport for many games, it still gets me excited."
Defensive end A.J. Page said the Southwest Minnesota State players are feeling honored.
"It's a great feeling to be a part of the history of SMSU football and a part of the first Mustang team play in a bowl game," Page said. "I think we are all feeling honored and we want to make the best of this opportunity."
The three-plus weeks the Mustangs have been idle have been a chance for them to get healthy.
"For the last few weeks, we have looked at it as a time to get our bodies rejuvenated. When you're playing week-by-week, it breaks down our bodies," SMSU linebacker DaShawn Miller said. "We have had a lot of time to prepare for Pitt State and getting our bodies healthy will help us play our best."
SMSU has dealt with the time off by keeping things consistent.
"We have trying to do the same things we have done every week in preparation for the Mineral Water Bowl," Mustang quarterback Charlie Kern said. "We feel that what we have been doing has given us success, so far. There really isn't a need to change things now for the bowl game.
"Most weeks, you only have a couple days to prepare for the opponent," Kern said. "But this has given us an opportunity to get healthy and check out (Pittsburg State's) whole game plan. We have seen a lot of the things they have done this season by being able to have more time to break down more film than normal."
The fruits of SMSU's labor has allowed the Mustangs to receive all-star treatment the last few days in Missouri. After arriving in Excelsior Springs on Thursday, the Mustangs and their opponents, the Gorillas, were treated to what a few SMSU players called a 'huge feast' from the host city. On Friday night, the Mineral Water Bowl committee staged a banquet with both teams in attendance.
While having some practice time, SMSU and Pittsburg State have spent a lot of time resting for the game by staying at a five-star hotel in Excelsior Springs.
Running back Tyler Tonderum has been surprised by some of the statistics the Mustangs have managed to accumulate this season, including the seven victories.
"I couldn't have dreamed for a better season than the one we have had," Tonderum said. "We have five senior offensive linemen who expected big things. I didn't want to disappoint them. I wanted to give our team an opportunity to win every game by playing the best that I could.
Tonderum, who is a national finalist for the Harlon Hill Award, which is given to the best NCAA Division II football player, has surpassed every expectation.
He enters this week ranked second in Division II and fourth in all of NCAA football with 1,979 yards rushing on 315 attempts with 18 touchdowns. Tonderum has also caught 32 passes for 274 yards and one touchdown. In this week's Division II statistics, he ranks second in rushing yards, third in all-purpose yards (209.3), 12th in rushing touchdowns and 12th in scoring (10.4).
Tonderum has rushed for more than 100 yards in nine of 11 games and has rushed for more than 200 yards four times, including a school record 343 yards in a victory on Sept. 14. The 343-yard game is the highest among Division II, FBS or FCS teams this season. He set the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference single-season rushing record and has also set seven school single-season records and two single-game school records.
"We have been able to put up some unrealistic offensive numbers because we have a great group of 11 guys on both sides of the ball who just battle on every play." Tonderum said.
Kern said the Mustangs are proud of their success and that it has had an effect on the community.
"It has been a lot of fun to see the people from Marshall being excited about football again," Kern said. "This game can be a huge boost, not only for the Mustang football program in recruiting, but also for the SMSU fans."