Win or lose, Saturday’s NCAA Division I FCS title game will be the last time the Stapleton brothers of Indiana play college football.
That’s a heavy weight that neither Riley Stapleton, nor his younger brother, Dylan, want to deal with just yet. Instead, they’re trying to focus on doing what they need to do in order to help their James Madison Dukes claim a national championship.
“I’m having a lot of emotions,” said Riley Stapleton, a fifth-year senior wide receiver and 2014 Indiana High School graduate. “It’s exciting because it’s one of the bigger games of my life, but obviously there is a little bit of sadness because it will be my last game in a college uniform. It’s been a heck of a ride. I’ve enjoyed it all.”
“It’s obviously very exciting,” said Dylan Stapleton, a senior tight end and 2015 IHS graduate. “Getting to play with Riley has been definitely a plus. We’ve been working for this our whole lives, and getting here was the goal since I got here.”
The Stapletons, who are the sons of Jim and Claudia Stapleton, of Indiana, and their James Madison teammates (14-1) will face two-time defending national champion North Dakota State (15-0) on Saturday in Frisco, Texas, for the national championship.
Riley is the Dukes’ second-leading receiver, with 55 catches for 688 yards and eight touchdowns. In his four seasons at JMU, he has caught 159 passes for 2,013 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Saturday’s game will be his third national championship game, as the Dukes won the title in 2016 and lost it in 2017. Last year’s team went 9-4 and got knocked out of the playoffs long before the finals.
“Winning this would mean the world,” Riley said. “My redshirt freshman year, we were at the top, but the problem when you win when you’re young is you start to expect it. We were humbled last year and came up short in ’17, it made us want it more. So to win it this year would be amazing.”
Dylan started his college career at Division II Slippery Rock, but transferred to James Madison in the summer of 2018. After serving as a backup last season, he stepped into the starting lineup this season and earned all-conference honors after catching 29 passes for 360 yards and one touchdown.
“The biggest thing was that I came here to win a national championship,” Dylan said. “I didn’t know what to expect, but I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I knew I could play at this level if I put the work in. I took a leap of faith and it worked out for me.”
The Stapletons are just two of the many players who have helped the Dukes get back to the national championship game for the fourth time since 2004. But the main story for JMU this season is the team’s success under first-year head coach Curt Cignetti, who held the same job at Indiana University of Pennsylvania from 2011 to 2016, when Riley and Dylan were students in Indiana Area School District.
Dylan said he had met Cignetti a few times in high school, but didn’t know what to expect when the former IUP coach was hired away from Elon last December. But he likes what he has seen.
“He preaches that we take one game at a time,” Dylan said. “He’s one of those coaches who never gives you a great speech, but he just says if you prepare well, you’ll play well. He’s always about getting us ready for game day.”
Since he dated Cignetti’s youngest daughter, Natalie, in high school, Riley already knew his future coach, but he said seeing the coaching side of Cignetti has been impressive.
“This was the side of him I was excited to get to know more of,” he said. “I knew him on a more personal level before, but now I know what kind of coach he is. He has a great attention to detail. He was successful before, and he is now, so to be led by him is a privilege and an honor.”
Because Riley took a redshirt at James Madison in 2015 and because Dylan has not taken a redshirt year, they both will finish their careers in the same season despite being a year apart. And since the Dukes have advanced to the title game, the Stapletons know exactly when their careers will end — Saturday in Texas.
So what better way to end it all by winning a national championship?
“This is what we’ve always wanted,” Riley said. “It’s one of the reasons Dylan transferred here. To play our last game together for the national championship will be fun. It’s everything we could ask for.”
It’s just a shame, Dylan said, that win or lose, it has to end.
“I try not to think about it as my last game,” he said, “but it’s pretty crazy how time flies. Hopefully we enjoy the outcome, but when it’s over I’ll reflect on my career. Right now, it’s a one-game mentality.”