MARQUETTE - Northern Michigan University senior quarterback Cody Scepaniak waited a long time for his first collegiate start with the Wildcats, which finally came Saturday in a win over Grand Valley State at the Superior Dome.
Junior running back Casey Cotta has been waiting even longer, but not for a start.
He just wanted to get back on the practice field.
Northern Michigan University junior running back Casey Cotta runs for a touchdown against Grand Valley State on Saturday at the Superior Dome in Marquette. Prior to Saturday, Cotta hadn’t suited up in two years recovering from injuries. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
"It's been a couple years. I don't know if anyone knows that," Cotta said. "It felt really good. Practice felt great. I felt explosive. The hamstring didn't bother me at all. The game just topped it off.
"I've been working my butt off. To finally get a chance out here, it's icing on the cake."
Cotta led the Wildcat rushing attack with 130 yards on 16 carries for an 8.1-yard average in Northern's first GLIAC win of the season against the then No. 14-ranked team in the country.
The Los Banos, Calif., native also ran in a pair of touchdowns with the first being an 11-yard run in the opening quarter and the other coming from 30 yards out in the fourth.
Head coach Chris Ostrowsky said Cotta was just the type of back Northern needed against GVSU - a hard, physical, downhill runner.
"It was kind of lightning in a bottle," Ostrowsky said. "The offensive line played outstanding and we put him in positions to be successful and he really took advantage of it."
Cotta, at 5-foot-9, 215 pounds, transferred to NMU in the spring of 2010 after playing two seasons in California at Modesto Junior College.
He was a member of the scout team in the fall of 2010 and four days into the 2011 training camp, Cotta tore his ACL.
Fast forward to August 2012, when Cotta injured his hamstring just days before training camp began.
"I almost wanted to quit, to be honest," Cotta said. "Something just told me to keep going, keep fighting, stay determined. I stuck with it and good things happen."
It wasn't just injuries holding Cotta back, however, it was the change that NMU went through offensively between his signing and the spring when he arrived.
Cotta was recruited by then-offensive coordinator Jeff Duvendeck, who was replaced in the spring of 2010 by Ostrowsky, who ran the spread.
Cotta admits to not being a spread back - not then, or even now.
"It didn't really fit my type of running, but I sort of evolved now," Cotta said.
And NMU (2-5 overall, 1-5 in GLIAC) has been forced to evolve as well this season due to the shakeup in the backfield, leaving Cotta one of the few options remaining at tailback as the Wildcats hit the road this weekend to play the 2011 NCAA Division II national runners-up of Wayne State (4-2, 4-2) at noon Saturday in Detroit.
Senior John Privitelli left the team before the season started and true freshman Keon Collier broke his leg during the Week 2 win over Wisconsin-La Crosse.
His season-ending injury was the first of many on the offensive side of the ball, especially at running back, with junior Trevor Kruzel and sophomore Wyatt Jurasin of Ishpeming - the linebacker turned running back - both going down around Week 5.
Meanwhile, NMU's leading rusher, senior Prince Young, has been suspended indefinitely by the university for a violation of team rules.
"(Cotta) is a kid who hasn't even been dressed for a game, let alone played in a game for two years," Ostrowsky said. "You talk about playing backups and that kind of thing, he doesn't even factor in on the depth chart. He just came up big. His preparation was good. He was excited to play and he played well."
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 252.