[caption id="attachment_26265" align="alignnone" width="300"] T.J. LaFaver[/caption] With Will Smith popping up on your television almost twice a day, I am sure you are aware of the rising concern of concussions in sports. Recent incidents around the country have forced the NCAA and other organizations to take a strong approach towards the protocols when dealing with a concussed athlete. Some of those same protocols have been followed carefully by Missouri Western. Blaise Kriley is going into his third year as the head athletic trainer at Western. He noted that, since the topic is becoming more popular, more people are starting to be more aware of seriousness and the symptoms of concussions. “If you remember, back in 2011-2012, that’s when the big NFL case came out with the concussions,” Kriley said. “The awareness about concussions became much more apparent, and I think it has risen due to education.” Yearly, Kriley and his staff work with over a dozen incidents involving concussions with athletes. Since Kriley has arrived, that count has been pretty steady over the years. “Each year we deal with 15-20 concussions,” Kriley said. “And for this year, we are kind of going on that same pace.” There are normally trainers around at the different sporting events going on around campus. According to Kriley, it is their job to identify athletes with concussion symptoms and proceed with the protocols immediately. “Basically, if we suspect that someone has a concussion, we evaluate them,” Kriley said. “If it is during practice or during a game, we immediately remove them from activity, then we do the evaluation.” After being removed from activity, a series of tests are ran on the athlete by a physician. “They then start what we call our concussion protocol,” Kriley said. “Which is when they see our team physician and they do what we call the IMPACT test, which is a neurocognitive test that helps measure brain functions.” After that, the athlete is then shut down from activity to allow time to heal from the incident. “They go into a period of rest and once they are symptom free, then they can start a return to play protocol,” Kriley said. “Which is just a progressive day-by-day exercise regimen that they do to work back into full activity.” This same protocol is used for athletes on campus, from the football team to the cheerleading squad. “It does not matter if you are a cheerleader, a golfer, a football player or a basketball player,” Kriley said. “We treat all concussion incidents the same.” The NCAA also has a hand in how the concussion protocols and history of the incidents are handled. “We have to have a concussion protocol on file,” Kriley said. “It’s like a plan that is on file so everyone knows what we have to do. We also have to do education on concussions. So, every student athlete that comes here, they watch a team video in their team meetings. It goes over signs and symptoms and a broad return to play protocol.” Some notable concussion incidents so far have been suffered by two of the Griffons quarterbacks. Both Skyler Windmiller and TJ Lafaver split time this past season when the other could not play due to concussions. Football was not the only sport were a notable concussion incident occurred. For a period of time, volleyball was without one of their All-MIAA performers in Jessie Thorup, due to concussions. Coach Marian Carbin feels that although volleyball is not seen as physical as football, some of the same symptoms apply. “I think the symptoms are similar,” Carbin said. “We actually had two concussions this year, and I think that some of the symptoms can get really severe. We have players that get nauseous, especially when they hit the floor or get hit by the ball.” Carbin noted that the after-effect problems can also be a challenge to deal with. “They have to be in environments that are low-stimulating,” Carbin said. “Where they just sit in their rooms normally. For our players coming back, just the noises in the gym are sometimes hard to deal with.” Concussions are an issue that is rapidly growing onto the public conscious and there are many accusations of wrongdoing in different levels of sport, but it is safe to say that Western takes the problem seriously and handles occurrences as such.
[caption id="attachment_26266" align="alignnone" width="300"] Running back Josh Caldwell[/caption] It was a challenging season for the Griffons this past fall. They are heading into next season with the possibility of having to rebuild at several positions. However, there are also some positions that look to be stacked and primed to improve from this past season. On defense, the linebacker is losing decorated player Yomi Alli, but have at least four linebackers with experience returning next season. Three of those players were All-MIAA selections this past season. Darrian Bass made Third-Team All-MIAA after putting up 62 tackles, six sacks and three interceptions. He was third on the team in total tackles. Cody Lindsay and Jorge Belcher both received All-MIAA Honorable Mention for their past season performances. Lindsay had 56 tackles and led the team in sacks for the second year straight, this year achieving 7.5. He was fourth in the MIAA in that category. Belcher finished the season with 29 tackles, along with 3.5 sacks, despite missing the final two games of the season. Those three will be playing without at least four players from the defensive line this past season, including All-MIAA performers Arbanas Elliot and Janis Matulis. Mackenzie Wischmann and Daylon Harper will be returning to anchor the line, and both have some experience in the trenches. It will be interesting to see if they continue to work Harper into the offense next season. Dennis McKinney seemed to catch the eyes of the coaches lately, and was starting to get on the field towards the end of this past season. He’s young, but should be able to contribute when he gets a couple of snaps. What seems to have the most uncertainties comes from two of the more crucial spots on the field, starting on the offense. The offensive line will lose three senior linemen, including All-MIAA performer Leonard Wester. On the bright side, they have two more All-MIAA performers in John Carter and Travis Anderson returning for another season. Although those players return will be impactful, the line will have to go through some reshuffling in order to see who fits where. They have a lot of depth at the position, but there is some inexperienced players on the roster. On defense, the secondary situation is similar to the offensive line. There are also two All-MIAA players returning at the safety positions in Donte Watkins and Jonathan Owens. Watkins was fourth on the team in tackles with 59 and also had two interceptions. Owens was second on the team with 85 tackles and was second on the team in interceptions with four. The bad news is that they will lose two more All-MIAA corners, which include two-time first-team All-MIAA member Mike Jordan and Sam Brown. Other than Elroy Douglas, who also finished up his career last season, no other corners saw much time on the field than Jordan and Brown this past season. That may have been because most of the other corners were redshirt freshmen. It will be interesting to see what corner O.J Graves' role will be heading into next season. He got some playing time, but who knows what Partridge has planned for his young but experienced secondary. On the bright side, the offense may be due for a big season next year. They lose the second leading rusher in school history in Raphael Spencer, but Josh Caldwell took a bulk of the carries when Spencer did not and he was impressive. Caldwell gave the offense a huge lift when Spencer was not on the filed with some of his punishing runs. Would not be surprised if they used two running backs heavily again, as Kendall Short showed flashes of brilliance last season as well. The biggest improvement should come from the passing game. Skyler Windmiller is headed in to his third season, and probably his first as the clear cut favorite to be the starter. This past season he went through more growing pains, but steadily showed improvement. Dee Toliver's decorated career at Western is over, but DiJuan Ussery and Trey Lewis were solid players for the Griffons this past season. They are both deep threats and allow Windmiller to stretch the field. For the past two years, the defense has been pretty solid, with the offense trying find its identity. This might be the year the table flips, and the offense gets rolling while the defense continues to be solid, but also goes through some growing pains of their own.
It was the last game for the seniors, and offensively, it may have been their best of the season. Western was able to finish the season with a 63-21 victory against Missouri Southern. The Griffons scored their first two touchdowns on the ground, courtesy of running back Josh Caldwell. A balanced attack of passing and running helped the Griffons take an early 14-0 lead in the first quarter. Raphael Spencer and Caldwell led the rushing attack, as the two averaged 5.8 and 8.6 yards per carry respectively. For the second straight game, both running backs achieved over 100 yards in the same game. Southern struggled to get anything going early, with the Griffons forcing three-straight three-and-outs, leading to more Griffon points. Quarterback Skyler Windmiller hooked up with big-play target Dee Toliver for a 69-yard touchdown reception, early in the second quarter. The game seemed to slip away from the Lions, after return man Brandynn Clark returned a kick for an 82-yard touchdown in the second quarter. It was Clark’s first return touchdown of the season. “I felt the punt team was long overdue for a house call,” Clark said. “I just felt that it was necessary to get one today.” Southern quarterback TJ Fleeton was finally able to get the Lions on the board, after a two-yard touchdown run, but the Griffons still had more left in the tank. Wideout DiJuan Ussery completed a 24-yard touchdown pass from Windmiller, making the game look out of reach for the Lions. Ussery also converted a 57-yard catch into a touchdown after the half, his second TD grab of the game. With Southern not finding an answer to the Western defense, Western gave them a heavy dose of Spencer and Caldwell to run off some of the clock. Spencer finished the game with 128 yards on the ground and one touchdown. He finished his third-straight season with over a 1,000 yards rushing and finished his career as the second-leading rusher in Missouri Western history. “It was a nice ride man,” Spencer said. “I am never going to forget the men in that locker room. They made it possible for me to do what I do. So, I will keep them in my heart, wherever I go.” Caldwell finished with 121 yards on the ground and two touchdown carries. Wideout Toliver finished the game with 89 yards and a touchdown grab. He led the Griffons in receiving in his final year as a Griffon. “I came in with a great group of guys,” Toliver said. “These guys have always had my back. The team has always had my back and I could have not done it without my teammates.” Although they gave up 14 points late in the game, the defense finished strong, along with senior linebacker Yomi Alli and senior cornerback Mike Jordan leading the way. Alli finished his senior season as the team’s leading tackler on the season. While Jordan led the team with five interceptions and in pass deflections on the season. “You invest into a lot of these young men,” head coach Jerry Partridge said. “Especially the ones that have been with you the whole time. The four-year guys, the five-year guys, and even like the guys like Yomi that go for six years. It is very difficult to say goodbye to them.” The Griffons finished the season 6-5, but were able to end on a two-game win streak.
That’s more of the offense we expect. The struggling Western offense busted out in a big way against Nebraska-Kearney and dominated the winless Loper squad to the tune of a 34-17 beatdown. “We had lost our mojo offensively,” Western coach Jerry Partridge said. “We weren’t as confident as we needed to be and it was nice to get that back.” The Griffons' top two running backs combined to rush for 404 yards in the game. “We ran the ball incredible in the second half,” Partridge said. Meanwhile, as a team, Nebraska-Kearney ran for 25 yards total. Raphael Spencer carried the ball 31 times for 251 yards and scored two touchdowns. “I wanted to just come into this week loose, playing with nothing to lose and just have fun and just remember why I fell in love with this sport,” Spencer said. Josh Caldwell added two more scores and ran for 153 yards on 19 carries. “(Spencer’s) been telling me, ‘We both going to get 100 (yards) this week,’ so that was the goal,” Caldwell said. The Griffons ran the ball 52 times with running backs, while Skyler Windmiller threw the ball just 15 times. This was the ‘Griffon Way’ we’ve been waiting for all season and they delivered it. “It starts with the coaches,” Caldwell said. “We had a great game plan.” In a season that will be largely looked at as a disappointment, last Saturday provided a glimpse of what could have been and where the expectations were. Spencer showed his all-conference level talent. Yomi Alli led the team in tackles again. Mike Jordan added another interception to his count. This is the team we expected and it was the seniors that led the way. “Mike’s interception was a turning point,” Partridge said. “Yomi showed up again, as usual.” The 5-5 Griffons will get one more chance to show what they are capable of this Saturday in Spratt Stadium against Missouri Southern. Saturday also represents Senior Day, the last game as a Griffon for the seniors including Spencer, Alli and Jordan.
Many kids grow up wanting to be a professional athlete. For Travis Partridge, that dream is a reality and he is not ready to give it up yet, as it has taken him across the country and even into another country on his quest to hang on to the boyhood dream. “It's crazy, all the places football has taken me,” Partridge said. “I’m blessed to play a game for a living.” Partridge’s career at Western is one of the most interesting stories of any player in the history of Griffon football. The son of Western’s head coach Jerry Partridge came to Western in 2009 and redshirted his first season before serving as a backup quarterback to senior Drew Newhart. In 2011, the offense was turned over to the athletic signal caller. Partridge did not disappoint. He was an honorable mention All-MIAA selection and ran for over 500 yards while throwing for over 1,600. The sophomore also took great care of the ball, posting a positive touchdown-to-interception ratio. Although Partridge turned in a great sophomore campaign, he entered 2012 as the biggest question mark on Western’s team. The Griffons returned stars like Michael Hill, David Bass, Shane Simpson, Tarrell Downing, Reggie Jordan and Ben Pister. They were primed for a big run as long as their quarter could guide them there. And he did more than just guide them. Partridge threw for over 2,700 yards and accounted for 48 total touchdowns through the air and ground. He and Hill formed one of the most dangerous backfields in Division-II. That team finished 9-1 in the regular season and took the MIAA championship in what is considered by most the greatest game in MWSU history. After trailing Northwest Missouri State 17-0 at halftime, Western roared back and took a 21-20 victory out of Maryville and Partridge accounted for all three score including the game-winning play with a 2-yard touchdown run with 1:07 left in the game. The next week, Western defeated Minnesota-Duluth 57-55 in three overtimes and Partridge accounted for seven touchdowns. Western would advance one more round before falling to Minnesota-Mankato in the round-of-eight, the farthest Western has ever advanced. The following year, Partridge’s senior season, the Griffons were forced to replace Hill, Downing, Simpson, Bass and Pister. The drop-off was unavoidable and even with a strong season from the reigning First-Team All-MIAA quarterback, they fell to 8-3 and missed the playoffs. Partridge then took his talents and attempted to make a run at the NFL and continue the pursuit of being a professional quarterback. “I’m incredibly blessed,” Partridge said. “You get to play the best position on the planet in any sport. I get to play professional football and on top of that I get to play quarterback.” He had a stint in the Minnesota Vikings’ training camp in 2014, but ended up signing with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. Partridge earned playing time with the Lions, but was cut in June of this year. He returned to Western after being cut and began working with the 2015 Griffons. “You spend five years and you get to know people,” Partridge said. “You care about them. That’s my family. So, anything you can do to help as a former athlete, you are going to do it.” Then on September 28, he got his shot to get back in the game. The Hudson Valley Fort signed Partridge and he headed to New York and the newly-formed FXFL. “It is a great level of play as far as the players that are there,” Coach Jerry Partridge said. The Fall Experimental Football League is made up of three teams and includes players, such as former Kansas State quarterback and first round NFL Draft selection Josh Freeman. “It's a developmental league,” Travis said. “Its a resume-builder is what it is. So basically, agents and scouts that like you in the NFL and CFL can recommend you. So that's what happened.” Partridge has made an impact early for the Fort. In his first start, he threw for 269 yards on 20-for-37 passing and ran for 54 additional yards. “Its been a good experience and if you put good film out there, you never know who will call you,” Partridge said. The quarterback hopes that this opportunity could lead to another chance at the CFL or NFL level in the future. Whenever Partridge does decide to hang up his cleats, the son of the winningest coach in Missouri Western history has no doubt where he’d like to end up. “My grandfather was a high school football coach for 30-plus years and my dad has been the football coach now for going on 20 years,” Partridge said. “So I’ve kind of known what I want to do since I was about 11. You want to play football for as long as you can possibly play and then hang up the spikes and show other people how to play it.” Before Partridge can begin pacing a sideline like his father though, he has a few more touchdowns to throw and defenders to run by as his playing career continues and he keeps living the dream.