Published December 21, 2019
Atlas Flight 8743 touched down in Buffalo early Saturday morning with one shiny extra passenger on board.
Buckled in tightly in seat 13K, a window seat, was the Prime Minister’s Trophy, awarded to the team that won the 2019 Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl. That would be the UB Bulls, who capped one memorable week in the Bahamas by winning one historic game for the UB football program.
The team returned to Buffalo with memories that will last a lifetime, most notably the pride in knowing that they accomplished something no previous Bulls team has: winning a bowl game. UB lost to UConn in 2009 in the International Bowl, fell to San Diego State in 2013 in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, and was tripped up by Troy last year in the Dollar General Bowl.
But, finally, the bowl losing streak is over.
In the waning seconds of Friday’s game at Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium, players stealthily carried a cooler of liquid toward head coach Lance Leipold and doused him in the ceremonial Gatorade bath. Then, they ran onto the field to celebrate when senior defensive end Ledarius Mack, the younger brother of Bulls great Khalil Mack, ended the game with a quarterback sack.
“We talked a lot about it this week, that this is something that they could accomplish that nobody else could ever repeat,” Leipold said.
“I think once we started talking about that aspect of it, I think it helped motivate them to understand that they might not have hit every goal we wanted to achieve this year, but this one would be very special and one that would separate them from any other team, past or future. I’m really proud of them.”
The significance of the moment was discernible across the faces of the players and coaches who, standing on the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl logo at midfield after Friday’s 31-9 win over Charlotte, soaked it all in and celebrated with family members, donors and alumni fortunate enough to witness UB history in person.
They snapped selfies, took turns posing for photos holding the trophy — adorned with two palm trees and a conch — and bounced up and down as ESPN reporter Dianna Russini emceed the postgame awards presentation on the field. President Satish K. Tripathi and Director of Athletics Mark Alnutt stood on the riser as the Prime Minister’s Trophy was presented to the team.
“Congratulations to our Bulls for winning UB’s first bowl game!” Tripathi said in a Twitter post. “We are so proud of how our student-athletes, coaches and the entire football program have represented UB on the international stage. You’ve given us much to celebrate this season!”
Sophomore running back Jaret Patterson was named Offensive Player of the Game after rushing for 173 yards and two touchdowns, while junior defensive end Malcolm Koonce earned Defensive Player of the Game honors for his five tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble.
While the underclassmen earned the hardware, the Bahamas Bowl win was a fitting sendoff for the team’s seniors.
“It’s a lot of emotions. Just trying to take it all in,” senior safety Joey Banks said. “This is a special moment for the program, the guys on the team. This is the first bowl win in school history, and to do it here on this beautiful island — we couldn’t be more excited for this moment.”
For the Bulls, it was an historic clean sweep in paradise.
They won the pinball competition held as part of the players welcome reception at the Atlantis Paradise Island Bahamas resort the night they arrived. They won the beach bash dance-off the next day. Even all the team’s equipment was ferried by the shipping company that has served the winning team now for each year of the six years the Bahamas Bowl has been in existence.
“We were two-for-two with the pinball and the dance competition, but this was the most important one,” senior linebacker Matt Otwinowski said. “There’s no better way to go out than this. We had a great time down here, but ultimately we came here to win a football game and that’s what we did.”
Candy Langton, who lives in Florida, was among the family members celebrating on the field after the clock showed zero and Leipold was still dripping wet after receiving the Gatorade bath.
Her grandson, Zac Lefebvre, is a junior tight end for the Bulls. “I had to take a lot of time off from work to get down here. But it was absolutely worth it,” she said, smiling proudly. Zac’s mom, Kerry Lefebvre, who lives near Rochester, also was there. “It’s so well-deserved,” she said. “They worked hard for this one. It’s been a long time coming.”
The Bulls enjoyed a fun week on Paradise Island, exploring the expansive Atlantis resort property, which includes a waterpark with several waterslides and a lazy river, a casino, dozens of shops and restaurants, and a variety of areas to view such marine wildlife as dolphins, sea turtles, sharks and manta rays. For some, it was their first time seeing the ocean.
No doubt, the memories they shared throughout the week will hold a special place in their hearts for years to come. But winning the program’s first bowl game makes the trip that much more worthwhile. In fact, many of the players during the week called it a “business trip.”
“It would have left a bad taste in the mouth if we had an incredible week here and then didn’t bring home the trophy. This made the whole trip so much better,” sophomore punter Evan Finnegan said.
“I really don’t know how to describe it, because it’s still not setting in yet,” added sophomore offensive lineman Dan Kubik said. “We just fought so hard for this. After Mobile last year we realized we didn’t play our best game. We got it right this year, locked it down and look where we are, winners of the Bahamas Bowl.”
“We’re the first team to do it and it’s always going to be that way. To be part of that, it’s just so — I’m speechless,” said redshirt sophomore quarterback Kyle Vantrease, who connected with junior wide receiver Antonio Nunn for the game’s first touchdown.
The game was broadcast live on ESPN, which gave the Bulls some additional national exposure. Nunn’s leaping first-quarter touchdown catch was No. 4 on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays of the day. And ESPN play-by-play man Steve Levy signed off, noting that he’s a “proud SUNY alum” (he graduated from Oswego).
While the Bulls will celebrate this bowl victory for a long time, thoughts are already turning toward next season. UB will return a number of key starters from this year’s group. It’s entirely possible the Bulls could find themselves bowling again in 2020, for the third year in a row.
Would they return to the Bahamas?
“Oh, you can bring us back every year if you like,” Leipold said during his postgame press conference.
For Leipold, the best memory of the experience will be watching the guys celebrate making history in paradise.
“I’m really happy for them. They present that trophy, I hand it backwards and I don’t know if I’ll see it again until we get to the office after the first of the year, and that’s OK with me.”