MANKATO, Minn. (AP) — It's been a season of heartbreak and hope, adversity and achievement, stunning in both the worst and best of ways.
And it's not over yet for Minnesota State, Mankato.
The team, which saw its season begin with the head coach being arrested on child pornography charges, advanced to the NCAA Division II semifinals with a 17-10 victory over Missouri Western on Saturday. A day earlier, exiled coach Todd Hoffner was cleared of the charges and pronounced himself ready to return to work.
With the circumstances surrounding the program off the field never more unstable, the Mavericks on the field have never been better. They are 13-0 and one win away from playing for the first national title in the program's history.
"There wasn't panic. There wasn't getting down on themselves. There wasn't finger-pointing or back-biting or a general erosion of team chemistry," athletic director Kevin Buisman said. "They just bowed their backs and got after it and worked a little bit harder and believed in each other. That's what makes this a pretty special group."
The turmoil came suddenly, during practice on Aug. 21, nine days before the season opener. The 46-year-old Hoffner was escorted off the field and later charged with one count of using minors in a sexual performance or pornographic work and one count of possessing child pornography. Prosecutors alleged that a video he took on his school-issued cellphone of his children playing in a bath amounted to child porn.
In the wake of the scandal at Penn State where an assistant football coach sexually abused children and school officials were excoriated for not intervening, Minnesota State officials moved quickly to address the situation. Hoffner was placed on administrative leave and offensive coordinator Aaron Keen was installed as the interim head coach.
"As I had to tell him, 'There's really not a whole lot I can tell you about the situation. You're in charge until further notice and I'm not sure how much more I can tell you about the situation,'" Buisman said, recalling his instructions to Keen. "He just said, 'I got it.'"
Keen had head coaching experience at Illinois College in Jacksonville, Ill., but taking the reins under such harrowing conditions and trying not to get caught in the backlash from Penn State's downfall was an entirely unique and daunting task.
"The most important thing was to let (the players) know we still had coaches that were going look out for their best interests, make sure they were well prepared and that cared about them and were there for them," Keen said. "The other most important thing was the kids in our program did nothing wrong. We wanted them to be proud of the program that they were in. I wanted to let them know they were going to have strong leadership at the top."
A 12-hour bus ride to Minot, N.D., for the season opener helped to bring the team closer together, and a 38-10 victory over Minot State set the tone for what would quickly become a special season that included a late rally to beat Southwest Minnesota State in October and an overtime win over Northwest Missouri State in the first round of the playoffs.
"The coaches did a great job of keeping our minds away from it," senior receiver Adam Thielen said. "We didn't want to worry about it. We feel bad about what happened, but what happened this season wasn't going to affect how we approached the game."
On Friday, the day before one of the biggest games in the program's history, Hoffner was back in the headlines. A judge threw out the charges against him, saying the video was nothing more than children playfully dancing naked after a bath and raising questions about whether school administrators and law enforcement overreacted.
Mike Hanson, the assistant county prosecutor who brought the charges, stood by his decision on Friday.
Once again, the Mavericks didn't flinch. The Minnesota State defense held Missouri Western star running back Michael Hill to 50 yards rushing and Connor Thomas rushed for 159 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown with 3:15 to play that put the Mavericks in the semifinals.
"A team that didn't have the same kind of focus and commitment could have been distracted. I was around the team as the news broke and there was really little discussion. It was all game-related," Buisman said. "I'm not with the kids 24/7. I don't know when that game face goes away and their minds drift to other things. I know that when they're in this building and when they take the field and when it needs to be about football, it's all about football."
Sooner or later, it won't be. Despite Hoffner's desire to rejoin his team, he was not on the Blakeslee Stadium sideline on Saturday. School officials said they were still conducting an internal investigation into the matter and Buisman didn't want to comment on what the future holds for both coaches.
"There's a lot of other things kind of swirling around in the background, but it's about the kids," Buisman said. "They'll never have the chance to experience this run to the national semifinals again. My focus is on how do we make it special, how do we make it memorable? So that they'll never forget and never question anything that we did as an administration, that we didn't do everything in our power to put them in the best position to be successful."
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