After struggling through the pandemic, Randolph-Macon College football ready to go back to the NCAA playoffs

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Randolph-Macon Head Coach Pedro Arruza leading his team onto the field before a game. (Photo: Randolph-Macon Athletics)

ASHLAND, Va. (WRIC) — The Randolph-Macon College football team is off to a great start this year. The team is 7-1, averages over 41 points a game and holds opponents to around 16 points per game. Any football coach would be more than happy to brag about these team accolades. 

But when talking to Head Coach Pedro Arruza, the only thing that he was proud of discussing was the fact that his squad is the least penalized Division III team in the country, and has been one of the least penalized teams for several years.

“I don’t think that happens by accident,” Arruza said. “I think our guys are very methodical in their approach- the way they do things both on the field and off the field.”

It’s this approach, instilled by Arruza, that is responsible for the great amount of success the coach has had while at the helm of the Yellow Jackets program. In his 18 years as head coach, he has led the team to four Old Dominion Athletic Conference Championships, three of which came in the last five years.  

Despite RMC’s recent success, the team has failed to reach the NCAA playoffs since 2018, where it lost to Muhlenberg College in the second round, 35-6.

In 2019, the team finished 9-2, but failed to qualify for the playoffs due to a late-season loss to Bridgewater College, 28-21. Bridgewater would go on to win the ODAC and RMC would not receive one of the five at-large bids given out at the DIII level.

Then, in March 2020, came the COVID-19 pandemic and all NCAA championships were postponed. The transition to Zoom meetings and FaceTime calls was hard for the players, but it was football that unified the team in the midst of all the chaos the pandemic posed, Arruza said. 

Randolph-Macon College senior running back Justin DeLeon running with the ball behind a lead blocker. (Photo: Randolph-Macon College Athletics)

“Getting back on campus in September and getting an opportunity to train together was something that all of these guys looked forward to,” Arruza said. “It’s been a great thing, an opportunity to get away from the madness and lack of normalcy.”

The team did have a spring season in 2021 and finished well with a 5-0 record and winning the ODAC. Due to the pandemic, however, the NCAA did not hold a DIII postseason tournament.

This year’s Yellow Jackets high-powered offense is led by senior running back Justin DeLeon. The Powhatan High School graduate is off to a sensational start, averaging 103.3 rushing yards per game and totaling 12 touchdowns on the season. 

He currently sits 17th in the country in total rushing yards with 826. When asked about his impressive season thus far, he looked to everyone but himself for the reason behind his success.

“First of all, I want to thank the offensive line, the tight ends and all the receivers because without them nothing would be possible,” DeLeon said. “[As well as] the coaches, I’m really thankful for them.

“Coming in, I just wanted to be able to help the team a lot more than in the past and just be able to contribute as much as I can.”

Senior defensive lineman Jace DePriest plays a big role in a stout defensive group that has been forcing two turnovers per game. The Varina High School graduate currently has 28 tackles, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles on the year.

Randolph-Macon College senior defensive lineman Jace DePriest trying to get past a blocker during one of the team’s games. (Photo: Randolph-Macon College Athletics)

He, along with DeLeon, is among the 36 seniors currently on RMC’s roster. The group will be celebrated on Saturday, Nov. 13, in the team’s game against Hampden-Sydney for Senior Day.

“We’re a really close class, we’ve been through a lot of hard things together,” DePriest said. “We don’t play because we hate the people in front of us, we play because we love the people behind us. We’re truly a brotherhood type of team.”

With two games remaining, the team unfortunately does not control its own destiny because of a one point loss to Washington and Lee University (6-1, 4-0) in week four. In order to win the ODAC, the team will not only have to win out but also hope Washington and Lee lose two of their three remaining games.

If this doesn’t happen, the team will need an at-large bid in order to qualify for the NCAA playoffs. Luckily for the Yellow Jackets, the team is currently receiving high consideration as it is ranked at No. 25 on the American Football Coaches Association poll, while Washington and Lee does not currently have a spot on the poll.

Whether the team makes the NCAA tournament or not, Arruza’s squad is focused on much more than just winning ball games:

“I think that part of the reason we win here is because the focus isn’t entirely on winning,” Arruza said. “These guys, they understand, number one they are here to get an education, they’re here to grow as men.”

The team faces off against Shenandoah this Saturday at 1 p.m. The team’s full schedule can be found on their website.

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