The moment Trey Vaval learned he was an All-American, he had to contain the celebration.
“I was in class and my phone was blowing up, and I saw I got it,” Vaval said. “I was sitting there trying to be quiet. It was really a surprise.”
A surprise for Vaval, but not for anyone who followed Missouri Western football and saw the gaudy numbers he put up returning punts and kickoffs. Vaval, a freshman and former Blue Springs South standout, was recently named a second-team All-American by the American Football Coaches Association.
Vaval, a 6-foot, 165-pound freshman defensive back, was selected as an all-purpose player, the first freshman from Missouri Western ever to make All-American. He’s also an All-MIAA (Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association) first-team selection and a D2CCA All-Region first-team return man as well.
A lot of honors for a player who didn’t expect to take the field as a freshman.
“I didn’t think I was going to play at all,” Vaval said. “I thought I was going to redshirt at first. Coming from high school is a big jump, so I didn’t think I would do as much as I did.”
All Vaval did was amass an NCAA Division II best 1,335 combined yards in kickoff and punt returns. HIs 34.7-yard kickoff return average broke a 27-year old MIAA record, and his punt return average of 21.14 yards also led the league. He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns, becoming only the 10th in MIAA history to do so in a season.
“Mainly, it was my blockers,” Vaval said. “Without them I wouldn’t have had the holes that I did. Last season in the winter I worked a lot on my speed. I got faster and that helped a lot too.”
Vaval used that speed to return a kickoff 91 yards for a touchdown in a 48-45 overtime loss at home against Central Missouri Sept. 21. When the Griffons hosted Nebraska-Kearney on Nov. 9, Vaval fumbled his first kickoff return, setting up a Loper score.
He returned the ensuing kickoff 85 yards for his second TD.
“I was relaxed,” Vaval said. “I just had to cool down and get my head right and tell myself I was built for this moment. Soon as I caught the ball I hit the sideline and just ran.”
MIssouri Western also lost that day, but that was the last setback in a 9-3 season that ended with a 35-14 victory over Henderson State in the Agent Barry Live United Bowl in Texarkana, Ark. Vaval was selected the game’s Most Valuable Player after returning four punts for 143 yards and three kickoffs for 82 yards.
Vaval didn’t feel like MVP material when the game began. Something he caught, or ate, left him with a headache and a queasy stomach.
“My first return I got the ball and I got tackled, and I was like, yeah, this is going to be a long day,” Vaval said. “Then the second one was kicked over my head and I had to go to chase it down. I got past a couple of guys and went 50 yards. That got me to keep going and do what I do.”
Even with all his special teams success, Vaval’s first love remains defense. He made 29 tackles as an off-and-on starter and he hopes to see more playing time on that side of the ball.
But wherever he plays, Vaval said becoming an All-American will make him play that much harder
“What it’s going to make me do is keep trying to get better,” Vaval said. “Because if I do this now I’ve got to keep doing it later on in my years.”