NORMAL — An Illinois State football team that its coach said took the Redbird program to "uncharted waters" was honored Tuesday in a postseason rally at Redbird Arena.
The Redbirds posted a school record for wins in a 13-2 season that culminated in an FCS national championship game appearance where ISU dropped a heartbreaking 29-27 decision to North Dakota State at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas.
"There's only one thing left to do: Win it all," Coach Brock Spack said to the delight of the crowd.
Spack thanked his players for "taking the vision of a common guy from Rockford and making it a reality. This is a special group, men of character. In my mind, you will always be champions."
The Redbirds shared the Missouri Valley Football Conference championship with North Dakota State. The Jan. 10 national title game between ISU and NDSU marked the first time two teams from the same conference played for the FCS crown.
ISU avenged its lone regular-season defeat in the first round of the playoffs by handling Northern Iowa before knocking off No. 4 Eastern Washington and No. 1 New Hampshire on the road.
"It was an incredible journey from sea to shining sea," director of athletics Larry Lyons said. "We had the toughest road and played the best teams in the tournament."
The Redbirds were picked sixth in the MVFC preseason poll and were nowhere to be found in preseason national rankings. ISU ended at No. 2 in both national polls.
"Us being dominant the way we were, the way we tackled every game, getting a chance to get to the national championship and play our hearts out, I'm happy what we accomplished," record-setting junior tailback Marshaun Coprich said. "We're coming back with the same attitude, even stronger. We're all going to regroup and be back in Frisco."
With approximately 4,000 ISU fans making the trip to Texas, Spack said Redbird supporters "set a bar that is truly remarkable. Our players were thrilled to see the support behind them.
"We need to carry that momentum to next fall. It takes all of us to have a championship-caliber football team."
ISU President Larry Dietz, who has been in office less than a year, said: "We had no idea what kind of rocket ride we were in for. This team has brought a pure joy to Illinois State University. You have lifted the spirits on this campus to new heights. I had never been to Frisco. Now I think of it as a winter destination."
Spack praised captains Coprich, Dontae McCoy and Chris Highland as "great guys, not just great players."
The Carter Harris Awards for most valuable players went to four-year starting cornerback Mike Banks on defense and quarterback Tre Roberson on offense.
Banks ranked third on the team in tackles with 93 and first with 17 pass break ups. Roberson established a school and conference record for total offense at 4,250 yards while passing for 3,221 and running for 1,029.
The Special Teams Player of the Year was kick returner Tevin Allen, who averaged 27.9 yards on 22 runbacks.
The Fred Cleland Award as most inspirational player was presented to defensive tackle Bradon Prate, who returned from knee surgery to regain his place as a key defensive player.
The scout team players of the year were quarterback Jake Kolbe, defensive back Arnell Anderson and Brannon Barry (special teams).
State Rep. Dan Brady, R-Bloomington, presented Spack with a resolution from the Illinois House of Representatives honoring the team's accomplishments.