BRIDGEWATER — Saturday evening at Jopson Athletic Complex was a celebration for Bridgewater College, not just because the Eagles opened the season with an impressive 41-10 victory against Gettysburg, but also because the 2001 BC team that advanced all the way to the Division III national championship game was also in attendance.
The Stagg Bowl squad became Bridgewater’s first Team of Distinction in a weekend ceremony, an honor that will be bestowed upon one group from the athletic department each year. For several of the former Eagles it served as a homecoming in more ways than one, as Bridgewater’s best-ever football team was built largely on local area talent.
“The best part for me is just seeing people we haven’t seen, a lot of guys, since we graduated,” Brian Ratliff, a wide receiver on the 2001 team said. “I don’t know when we’ll get to see them again, so it’s reconnecting with teammates and buddies we haven’t seen in a long time.”
Ratliff, an alumnus of both Bridgewater College and Broadway High School, still lives in the Harrisonburg area, but former Eagles came back for the weekend from locations as far away as California. Some that no longer live in the area still have deep ties that go back to childhood.
Ratliff and quarterback Jason Lutz, a Stonewall Jackson High School product, were among the standouts on the Stagg Bowl team, which nearly pulled off an upset of dynastic powerhouse Mount Union in the title game before falling 30-27.
Lutz threw for 374 yards and three touchdowns and rushed for another score while Ratliff made seven catches for 161 yards and two touchdowns against Mount Union.
They were just a couple of the local products who helped carry the Eagles to Salem, site of the Division III title game from 1993-2017.
Turner Ashby products Matt Huffman and Mike Budd played on the offensive line along with another former Broadway standout, James Beahm. Harrisonburg High produced a couple of defensive linemen, David Long and George Nipe, while Buffalo Gap wide receiver Nick Nycum was also a member of the Stagg Bowl squad.
“I was really excited to honor the team, but more so to reconnect with all the guys,” Huffman said. “When we started replying and the list was growing I just got more excited to have an opportunity to get together and hang out and reminisce.”
Like the 2001 group, the current Eagles are a senior-laden team that worked through some rough patches to get to this point with a losing overall record as freshmen and sophomores before becoming one of the favorites to win the Old Dominion Athletic Conference in 2019.
Several members of the Stagg Bowl team were on a Bridgewater squad that went winless in 1998 before completely turning the program around.
“As painful as the freshman year was, Jason and I both started pretty early on,” Huffman said. “That built the character that helped everybody come together. That made it into a really special moment to turn it all the way around to go from 0-10 to ending it all in the championship game.”