Mount Union makes its sixth consecutive appearance in the NCAA Division III national championship game - the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl - today.
It would be tough to find a Purple Raider who is looking forward to the game any more than Tyler Almeida.
The Elyria High graduate is a sophomore kicker for Mount Union, which plays familiar foe Wisconsin-Whitewater at 3:30 p.m. in Salem, Va. The teams have met in the last five Stagg Bowls with the Raiders winning in 2005, '06 and '08.
Almeida has been a part of the last three Stagg Bowls, but never like this season.
Two years ago, Almeida was a freshman on the Raiders' national championship team, handling kickoffs. He had six of them in the championship game for 347 yards and an average of 57.8 yards per kick.
However, when the Purple Raiders returned to the title game last season, Almeida wasn't on the field at all. That's because his sophomore season was derailed by injury before it ever got started.
"I tore my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament)," Almeida said by cell phone this week while on the way to Salem. "It was hard to come back, especially the first time. It was frustrating because it happened around spring, summertime. It's been a long, slow climb to get back to where I was."
The torn ACL was in his plant leg, meaning his body weight had to be supported by a surgically repaired ligament as he prepared to kick the football. Initially, the thought of kicking again was not an easy thing for Almeida to handle.
But after his first practice back, his nerves calmed down.
"It was a big relief just to know that my knee held up and everything looked good," Almeida said. "It's gotten back to where I like it and it's a big relief. I missed the game a lot. Especially after getting hurt and being out of it for a while, it made me appreciate it that much more because I was away from it.
"Right now, it's good. When I first started kicking, I was being more careful because it really wasn't holding up my weight, but it's been a lot better. I still feel it every once in awhile, but not enough to affect me."
Almeida's leg has improved to the point where not only is he handling kickoffs, but also extra points and field goals - with a lot of success. He has connected on 71 of 73 extra points and 16 of 19 field goals.
Should he get the chance to add to his field-goal or extra-point totals by connecting on a kick that would seal Mount Union's 11th national championship, he wants the feeling to remain the same as all other attempts.
"I hope there's nothing different going through my head than any normal extra point or field goal during the regular season," Almeida said. "I know it's part of the job and it's an opportunity. I've got to take it in stride and I hope, when I'm out there, it'll feel like just another field goal on another day."
Still, Almeida knows the overall feeling of the game will be different than any game he's played in before.
"It's going to be more fun than the first time, for me at least," Almeida said. "I realize more what's going on and the significance of what the game means. It's a lot of a relief, getting down there. You get out on the field, get to know the field and get a feel for it."
One thing the Purple Raiders have a feel for is championships.
Under the direction of Larry Kehres, Mount Union has already won 10 national titles and is looking to bring another walnut and bronze trophy back to Alliance.
Becoming a Force
Almeida isn't the only Lorain County resident on Mount Union's roster.
Jack LaForce, a Vermilion grad, is a third-year linebacker for the Purple Raiders. He's had 13 tackles, including nine solo stop, in seven games this season. He also has 1.5 sacks for 12 yards and three tackles-for-loss.
He is a part of a defense that has forced 24 interceptions, recovered 19 fumbles and scored three touchdowns.
Contact Matt Florjancic at 329-7135 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Tyler Almeida File
• Position: Kicker
• Height: 6-0
• Weight: 200 pounds
• High school: Elyria
• Key Statistics: Has connected on 97.2 percent of his extra-point attempts and 84.2 percent of his field-goal tries.
• Fast Fact: Returned to the field in 2010 after missing the entire 2009 season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).
The Jack LaForce File
• Position: Linebacker
• Height: 6-1
• Weight: 210 pounds
• High school: Vermilion
• Key Statistics: Is one of 11 Purple Raider defenders to register at least one sack this season.
• Fast Fact: Also played in the 2008 Stagg Bowl in which Mount Union defeated today’s foe, Wisconsin-Whitewater.
• WHO: Mount Union Purple Raiders (14-0) vs. Wisconsin-Whitewater Warhawks (14-0)
• WHAT: Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl
• TIME: 3:30 p.m.
• WHERE: Salem Stadium, Salem, Va.
• TV: ESPNU