Going from doormat to contender
At this time last year, Bridgewater was putting itself on the map with a 19-7 win against perennial Centennial Conference champion Western Maryland. On Saturday, the Eagles made sure they stayed firmly entrenched "on the map," with a 29-20 victory against the Green Terror.
The Eagles, who began the season ranked sixth in the D3football.com preseason Top 25, one spot ahead of Western Maryland, are in unfamiliar territory. Bridgewater was once the doormat of the Old Dominion Athletic Conference (The Eagles have played every conference opponent since 1950 or before, and have no more than nine wins in any series), but they're the state's best team now.
For head coach Michael Clark and his Eagles, the change is nothing less than delicious.
"There's no question we're dealing with something Bridgewater hasn't had to deal with before," said Clark of the high expectations. "But we have a mature team. I would worry a lot more if you were having to deal with a young team."
Clark has 18 starters back, including 10 on offense, from a team that rallied from a 28-3 halftime deficit last year against Washington & Jefferson to score a win in the school's first NCAA playoff game. After the 49-42 victory, they battled Trinity (Texas) into overtime, falling 47-41.
In 2001, the Eagles are the talk of their small northwestern Virginia town.
"I've always thought that athletics can energize a campus and community. You saw that here on Saturday. It was the talk of the campus.
Clark said he wrote a letter on Wednesday to the leader of the Bridgewater pep band, thanking the 43-member squad for their enthusiasm. It was a group, he said, once "resembled the Petticoat Junction Band" during the darker years.
Clark, who played and coached at the Division I level, said a crowd of 3,200 might not seem impressive, but for a program that was 0-10 twice in the 90s (once under Clark) and went 2-18 in 1997 and 1998, when the current seniors were being recruited or were freshmen, it feels like the big time. Clark said the season opener for both teams was an event on campus, even for non-football fans.
Those who were concerned with X's and O's saw on Saturday that Bridgewater is picking up right where it left off last season.
"It was a good win and a good game," Clark said. "I'm kind of proud of our kids. You had two teams that spent a summer reading about how good they are come out and play a good game."
For the Eagles to stay on the roll they are on, Clark will count on the maturity of his team.
"The kids need to be aware," Clark said, "that when you're playing well, you become the big game for a lot of people. Our kids have to expect that other teams are going to play well against us."
It starts this week with Shenandoah, a second-year program, but outsiders can't help but look ahead to an Oct. 20 showdown at Emory & Henry. Both squads made the NCAA playoffs in 2000, and the Wasps won the ODAC title by virtue of a 37-35 win against the Eagles. The Wasps also have a 25-1-1 series edge against Bridgewater.
Clark says his squad is well aware of the implications of that game, especially since the ODAC's automatic qualifier is the only sure way to get into the postseason.
"But there are so many things that need immediate attention," he said. "I would hope it is a big game when it gets here, but to give it any more than a passing thought now wouldn't be [doing my job]."
For now, the Eagles are enjoying every minute of their football success.
"For all you have to invest in football," said Clark, "yeah, when we win, we have fun. Myself, and particularly the people in our senior class, us being non-winning that isn't a distant memory here… You don't work like [we] do and not enjoy it. Mike Clark will always have fun when he wins, whether it is 7-6 or 70-6."
Around the Nation
Some kids can't handle their first turn in the spotlight. But not Rose-Hulman's Josh Willis. The junior backup quarterback came on in relief of classmate Jared Tharpe and guided the Engineers to 16 points in the fourth quarter, leading RHIT to a 23-22 victory over state rival Earlham.
The win earned the Engineers the Broad Sword in the first-ever "Battle of the Borders." Rose-Hulman is in Terre Haute, Ind., on the state's western border. A short ride down I-70, on Indiana's eastern border, is Richmond, home to the Quakers.
Tharpe left the game on a backboard after sustaining a neck injury in the second quarter, but he returned from the hospital in time to join his teammates on the ride back to Terre Haute.
Oberlin's 26-14 loss to Franklin and Marshall extended the Yeomen's losing streak to 40 games, which tied ... yep, Oberlin's own 40-game losing streak that started in 1992. The Yeomen's last win came against Thiel in the 1997 season opener.
74-year-old Division III coaching legend John Gagliardi trails Eddie Robinson's all-time win mark by 31 victories, but the quirky St. John's head man would surely say little of his 377 victories after Saturday's opener. Gagliardi, who has guided seven of his last 10 Johnnies squads to at least 11 victories, hates to lose. His 10th-ranked team, which returned only five starters from the 2000 Stagg Bowl runners-up, stumbled at home in its opener against UW-Eau Claire, 25-10.
Rowan and Guilford's ventures against Division II opponents ended quite differently. The Profs, 1998 and 1999 national runners-up, started 2001 with a bang, rolling 51-19 at Millersville. First-time starter Tony Racioppi threw a school-record six TD passes for the Profs. The Quakers, 1-9 last year, visited Division II power Carson-Newman and lost 58-0.
The members of the Atlantic Central Football Conference can smile, at least after the season's first week. Three of the conference's four remaining teams were in action, and all won, led by Wesley's 20-3 victory at Ferrum. The Wolverines edged the Panthers 27-24 last season to take home the ACFC crown. The Panthers were one of four schools to bolt the football-only ACFC in the offseason for the Dixie Conference, their home in other sports. Five of the Dixie's seven schools were in action on Saturday. All lost.
Games to watch
No. 2 Hardin-Simmons at Menlo
Menlo (Atherton, Calif.) traveled to Abilene, Texas, in its season-opening 40-15 over McMurry. This week, the Oaks get a visit from McMurry's crosstown rival, second-ranked Hardin-Simmons. The Cowboys return 16 starters from a 12-1 national semifinalist in their opener.
No. 3 Pacific Lutheran at Azusa Pacific
The 1999 Stagg Bowl champions visit Southern California for what should be a high-octane matchup against the NAIA's Cougars. Keep an eye on how Tyler Teeple replaces All-American Chad Johnson at quarterback.
Susquehanna at No. 7 Western Maryland
The Green Terror continues a rigid out-of-conference schedule against one of the MAC's upper-echelon teams. Western Maryland will try to rebound from an opening week loss.
No. 9 Trinity (Texas) at Gustavus Adolphus
The perennial SCAC champions edged the Gusties 14-7 last season, but rolled 41-14 in their this year's opener with Texas Lutheran. If only the trip from San Antonio to Minnesota were in November, the Gusties must be wishing.
Wilkes at No. 11 Widener
Mike Warker, who transferred from Rowan, will make his debut for the Pioneers, reigning East Region champions. He'll have two of the country's top targets to throw to in Jim Jones and Michael Coleman, but they'll also be facing one of the MAC's sturdiest defenses in Wilkes.
No. 15 Rowan at Wesley
Wesley lost 42-32 to the Division III power last year, but the result seemed to help the Wolverines earn a playoff berth in 2000. Something tells me they won't be thrilled with another loss.
Ferrum at No. 21 Emory & Henry
Southwestern Virginia's finest clash for regional bragging rights. 2000 Old Dominion Athletic Conference champs face the 2000 ACFC runners-up in a game that is always a battle.
Illinois Wesleyan at Washington (Mo.)
CCIW's Titans eager to get rolling after going 9-1 and missing the playoffs in 2000. If the Titans were planning on going undefeated in 2001, they could have picked an easier non-conference opponent. The Bears (of the UAA) have posted eight consecutive winning seasons.
Muhlenberg at Cal Lutheran
If the Mules aren't jet lagged from this Division I-A style road trip from Allentown, Pa. to Thousand Oaks, Calif., they could bring home a victory. Wide receiver Josh Carter scored three touchdowns in the second quarter of Muhlenberg's 42-17 season-opening win against Kings Point.
Pomona-Pitzer at Oberlin
The Yeomen try to avoid breaking their own record for consecutive losses while hosting the Sagehens. This has got to be the battle of the two weirdest team names in Division III football.
Averett at Gallaudet
Second-year squad (1-9 in first season) hosts Bison, who went 0-4 in varsity games last year after returning from club competition from 1995-99. Somebody gets a win.
Christopher Newport at Randolph-Macon
The Captains get their second chance for a first-ever win as they face a Yellow Jackets team that lost its opener 40-0.