It is difficult to imagine a more unique way to start play as a football program.
Ottawa University Arizona Spirit football will kick off its inaugural game Aug. 24 at its home field in the Surprise Civic Center – against a university from Mexico.
CETYS Universidad out of Mexicali, Mexico – just south of the California border – visits for a preseason game of sorts, Kicking off at 7 p.m. on Spirit Field. CETYS is in the process of applying to join the NCAA Division II ranks.
“The game with CETYS came about because their AD is a former athlete from the GSAC conference, which is the conference our teams will compete in last year. We were in need of a non-conference game, and CETYS played NCAA DII Humboldt State University last season in California,” stated Derek Diesner, OUAZ sports information director, in an email. “This game will be an international friendly and will not count towards our regular season record.”
It also should serve as a dry run of sorts for game-night operations at Spirit Field. The venue has hosted soccer games and scrimmages, but never a full football game with bleachers, a press box, locker rooms and other typical trappings of a football game.
The Spirit have Labor Day weekend off, then plunge into their regular season. All nine games are against NAIA rivals from the newly formed Sooner Athletic Conference.
“They’re going to be a good team. There’s not many schools in Mexico going that route,” Ottawa Arizona coach Mike Nesbitt said of CETYS. “The bye before we start in conference will help a lot. It’s a great set up for us.
Five of those league showdowns are at home, but season one starts at Langston University in Oklahoma on Sept. 8. Langston closed out the 2017 season ranked No. 13 in the NAIA Postseason Top 25 Poll.
Nesbitt said he believes the SAC will have three to four top-25 ranked teams each year, and the Spirit will be tested right away with a tough Langston team.
Five conference home games are on tap, beginning Sept. 15. OUAZ hosts Oklahoma Panhandle State University, which finished the 2017 season ranked No. 24 in the NAIA Poll. The Spirit will host Lyon College the following weekend, Sept. 22.
“None of our guys have ever seen these teams play, no have most of the coaches. No one (in the conference) besides Arizona Christian has really recruited our kids,” Nesbitt said. “We’re not going to be sneaking around. I think every college football program wants to play good competition.”
While Nesbitt spent much of the past two decades coaching in New Mexico and Texas, he said the only new Sooner conference rival he is familiar with is Oklahoma Panhandle State. His previous school, NCAA Division II West Texas A&M played the Aggies in 2015 and 2016.
He said the 10-team conference is no less than the lifeblood of the program. The new league should also help the other Arizona NAIA team, Arizona Christian – which enters its fifth year of play and competed with many of the new Sooner conference teams in the Central States Football League.
“In my opinion, we wouldn’t have made it as an independent and have to go one the road most of the time. We’d have something like two home games,” Nesbitt said.
The highlight of the schedule will be on Oct. 6, when OUAZ plays host to Phoenix-based Arizona Christian University. It will be the first chance for Arizona’s two newest football teams to play.
“It will be an added bonus that we get to begin our crosstown rivalry with Arizona Christian on our home turf this season. While we are excited for all of the teams to come to Surprise and see our beautiful campus, we are also extremely excited to begin this rivalry on the gridiron with our crosstown foes from Arizona Christian University,” Diesner stated. “We hope that this rivalry can really blossom here in The Valley of the Sun.”
Local high school foes, as well as former teammates, will square off at Spirit Field and should spark interest on campus and in the West Valley.
And this rising tide could lift both teams, even though the Firestorm has established a solid program with three consecutive winning records.
“I think it’s good for both teams. These kids know each other from junior high on. I think it will maximize what we’re both trying to do athletically, academically and spiritually,” Nesbitt said.
Who will take the field for Ottawa? Right now the football team site lists 111 players for the Spirit, though that is the 2017-18 roster in what was basically a redshirt year for the entire program.
Nesbitt said the team will top out at about 128 kids. Between 20 and 30 of those will be incoming freshmen that will redshirt in 2018.
The coach said his young roster will have eight to 10 seniors and 12 to 15 juniors. Nesbitt estimated 95 to 99 players will dress for each game.
He said 75 of the original group that signed with the program in spring and summer 2017 remain, and about 15 more players transferred in from other colleges.
“We’re all different now that we’ve been together for a year. We’ve got some guys that have taking to those leadership roles, Nesbitt said.
OTTAWA UNIVERSITY ARIZONA
Home games in caps
Aug. 24 CETYS UNIVERSIDAD (Friendly)
Sept. 8 at Langston (Okla.)*
Sept. 15 OKLAHOMA PANHANDLE STATE*
Sept. 22 LYON COLLEGE (Ark.)*
Sept. 29 at Southwest Assemblies of God (Texas)*
Oct. 6 ARIZONA CHRISTIAN*
Oct. 13 TEXAS COLLEGE*
Oct. 20 at Bacone College (Okla.)*
Nov. 3 WAYLAND BAPTIST (Texas)*
Nov. 10 at Texas Wesleyan*
- – Denotes Sooner Athletic Conference game