FARGO, N.D. — Emotions were high for Jerick McKinnon, J.J. Wilcox, Dominique Swope and Brent Russell, the four Georgia Southern Eagles who represented the team in the post-game press conference following Friday night’s 23-20 loss to North Dakota State in the semifinals of the Football Championship Subdivision semifinals.
The Eagles have lost each of the last three seasons in the semifinals, and three years of emotion came out when the players finished their interviews and crossed paths with head coach Jeff Monken, who was preparing to take questions.
Monken and the players embraced for several moments, and Monken stepped outside the room to regroup before returning to take questions.
"I apologize for losing my composure there," Monken said. "It hurts. It hurts bad. When you care, it hurts. I love those kids. To get to this point in the season and not get it done, again, nobody is pointing fingers. Those kids, I’m so proud of that team. They work hard, they play hard together, and it’s hard to lose like that."
Monken spoke to the team’s hard work from spring camp in March until Saturday’s game in an effort to make it to the FCS national title game.
"I feel helpless," he said. "I wish there was something I could do, something I could have done better to help us win the football game, and I’m going to agonize over it for a long time, I’m sure."
When asked if the close loss to NDSU, the same team that eliminated GSU in 2011, would motivate the team next season, Monken thought for a moment.
"We’ve been here three times and lost three times," Monken said. "We couldn’t be more motivated. I thought our guys were ready to go. I thought we played like it. When you get to this point in the season and you’re playing in the semifinals, you don’t lose because you’re flat. Our guys gave it all they got, and their guys did too.
"You can’t take it for granted that you’re going to be in the semifinals every year. It takes a tremendous effort. We’re going to get back to work. All these guys that are returning, hopefully we’re going to have a good enough team that we can find our way back here."
The same can’t be said for Russell and Wilcox, two of nine GSU seniors who had a graduation ceremony Thursday night in Fargo.
"I’m just looking back over the last four and a half years at Georgia Southern, and it’s been a great ride," Russell said. "These guys will be my brothers for life. I’ll never forget them."
Russell recorded a sack in the second quarter of the game, the 25th of his career, setting the record for the most by any player in Georgia Southern history.
On Friday night, however, only one thing was on his mind.
"It’s something about 20 years down the road I’ll look at," Russell said, "but trust me, I’ll always remember the guys, coach Monken and the staff. Such a great group of people."
Matt Yogus may be reached at (912) 489-9408.