MOBILE, Ala. -- No player understands the overall magnitude of the Kent State football program's achievements this year better than Anthony Melchiori.
The Golden Flashes' freshman punter grew up in Aurora, about a 25-minute drive from Kent. Before starring as a wide receiver/kick returner/punter for the Greenmen he spent many childhood Saturdays at Dix Stadium watching Kent State football and his father Ray Melchiori, a Kent Roosevelt graduate who played for the Flashes back in the mid-1980s.
Together, the Melchioris witnessed a lot of KSU games. But they didn't see many wins.
"My dad always tells me you need to cherish every single moment, second, all the time you have down there because when he played at Kent they were never even close to a bowl game at all," said Anthony Melchiori following a Thursday morning practice on the campus of South Alabama in preparation for Sunday's GoDaddy.com Bowl. "I think they had one winning season while he played at Kent State.
"He reminds me every day that this is a special moment."
Ray Melchiori was actually fortunate to enjoy one winning season while with the Flashes. They had notched only two winning campaigns in the past 34 years before Anthony Melchiori stepped on campus as a freshman in 2012.
Then, the losing suddenly stopped.
Thanks in major part to a consistently stellar effort by special teams units anchored by senior kicker Freddy Cortez and Melchiori, the Flashes have enjoyed the best season in program history. They've earned a school-record 11 victories and captured the Mid-American Conference East Division championship, their first title of any kind since 1972. They will cap the banner campaign by ending a 40-year bowl drought by battling Sun Belt Conference champion Arkansas State in the GoDaddy.com Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala.
Anthony Melchiori's timing could not have been any better.
"Being a freshman and going to the first (KSU) bowl game in such a long time is just unbelievable," he said. "Right now I'm just really soaking it all in, taking in the experience. After the season's over and a month or so goes by you'll be able to sit back and think wow, that was one great year as a freshman."
While the winning was immediate for Melchiori, Cortez had to suffer through three consecutive mediocre 5-7 seasons before his breakout senior year.
"We were the No. 1-ranked recruiting class in the MAC, and who knew it would take us four years to get it done?" said Cortez. "We've been through some ups and downs. All three seasons we were 5-7, but people don't understand a lot of those games we lost were by three or seven points, just little mistakes that cost us. We always had talent, we just could never find that chemistry, what it takes to finish a game."
Part of the missing ingredient was inconsistency on special teams. But that certainly hasn't been the case this year.
Kent State leads the MAC in net punting (40.1 ypp) behind Melchiori, who is averaging 42.5 yards per punt with 15 boots covering 50 or more yards and 25 downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line. Meanwhile Cortez has made 15 of his last 18 field goals, including 13-of-14 overall inside 40 yards, and has notched 33 touchbacks on consistently booming kickoffs.
Toss in the leading kickoff returner in the nation in junior speedster Dri Archer (38.2 ypr), who returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in the first five games of the season before teams stopped kicking to him, and you have the premier overall special teams group in the MAC -- and one of the best in the nation.
"The only question (on special teams) we had coming into the year was the punter. And this man has stepped up big-time," said Cortez, pointing to Melchiori. "No one knew he was gonna come out and do what he's done."
Together, Melchiori and Cortez have helped bring an end to the losing ways they've witnessed, one as a kid and the other as a young player. Now they hope to help Kent State slap an exclamation point on the premier season in program history by earning its first-ever bowl victory on Sunday.
"This year we all bought into the system," said Cortez. "We had a lot of star players, but no one separated themselves. We were all a team and stayed together, and pulled off one season that I wouldn't trade for anything in the world. Now we want to end it the right way.
"This game, a lot of it's gonna come down to (special teams), whether it be a field goal, field position. It's gonna come down to us somehow, some way."