They really do like cheese

More news about: UW-Eau Claire | UW-Stout

I’d usually prefer not do the same type of column two weeks in a row, but since a weekend stay with in America’s Dairyland was first-class, I thought I’d share with the nation what football is like in Menomonie and Eau Claire.

Headed to UW-Stout to cover the 12th-ranked Blue Devils’ clash with No. 15 Hardin-Simmons, I skipped work on Friday, flying into Minneapolis from Washington, D.C.’s Dulles airport a day after Pat Coleman did. After a nice encounter with Pat’s family, we wandered into Menomonie, a small-town with a brick-laden main street district set upon giant Lake Menomin.

Not quite sure what to do with Friday night, we made our way to Menomonie High School’s game with Rice Lake, a 41-13 affair that spectators said would be among Menomonie’s closest competition all season. Though I saw three touchdowns and two black people in my first ten minutes at Don & Nona Williams stadium — where Stout would play the next day — good people are good people, and I felt welcome.

Pat and computer expert Ryan Coleman, Pat’s humorously cantankerous younger brother, made up our travelling contingent for the weekend. Meeting Stout coach Ed Meierkort on the night before the game at a Blue Devil hangout called the Mardi Gras Café, we were treated, and treated well. We were also told by locals, in not so many words, that if we didn’t try the beer, brats and something with cheese in or on it, we weren’t really experiencing Wisconsin. Although I’d been to Madison before, I had always thought the cheese thing was an exaggerated stereotype.

UW-Stout coach Ed Meierkort
Ed Meierkort surveys the scene with his team trailing in the second quarter.
Photo by Ryan Coleman,

Whether they were students tapping Meierkort on the shoulder to wish him good luck on Saturday or Cowboys parents who had flown up from Texas, everyone we ran into in town had a smile on his or her face and couldn’t wait to see these two teams kick off.

Hardin-Simmons players were up early and ready to go in the morning. We stayed in a motel next to theirs, and believe me, we were up early to be interviewed on a local radio show. Jake Bostrom and Steve Schrantz review high school games from the night before and talk Stout, Eau Claire and River Falls, all while broadcasting out of Bob & Steve’s Amoco/BP gas station in the heart of Menomonie.

One thing we learned over the course of the weekend: As much as we enjoy covering Division III football, fans out there enjoy having it covered and discussing it on the message boards. People really tuned in to the radio show, and we were greeted over and over again with appreciation for what the site provides.

After a morning interview with Cowboys coach Jimmie Keeling, nice enough to accomdate us in the lobby of the Best Western, we were ready for game time.

Hardin-Simmons used an advantage in quickness — not necessarily team speed — to get the ball in the hands of their playmakers and take a 14-0 advantage. But Stout had barely had the football. Able to establish some rhythm behind the tailback tandem of Luke Bundgaard and Ryan Englebert, and receiver Matt Sprester, the Blue Devils narrowed the lead to 14-7. With the aid of a defensive holding penalty that nobody I know saw, Stout turned a failed fourth down into a game-tying, momentum-stealing touchdown with four seconds left in the half.

“Honestly, we don’t really acknowledge the scoreboard until the second half,” said Meierkort after the game. He was apparently telling the truth, as his team took a 10-point lead on two drives of more than six minutes in the third period.

Hardin-Simmons remained in the game, and drove toward a score that would have made it 24-21 before a fumble, which appeared to come after the ballcarrier was tackled, turned the ball back over to Stout. The Blue Devils continued dominating, as they went up 31-14. In the second half, Stout converted seven of 10 third downs and held the ball for nearly 20 minutes.

The Blue Devils, who lost three games by a total of seven points last season, are not strangers to rallying from behind.

“I don’t think you can put this team in a situation they haven’t been in,” Meierkort said.

The coach recalled overcoming a 20-0 first-quarter deficit against UW-River Falls in October 2001. Last year, their season ended on a failed rally from a 14-0 deficit against UW-La Crosse. With its holder injured, Stout went for two and came up a foot short, giving the Eagles the WIAC title and NCAA automatic bid, 28-27.

“This exorcises all the ghosts of the end of last year,” Meierkort said.

Keeling was disappointed with the loss, especially since his team was flagged eight times and Stout just twice, not including two occasions where penalties offset.

“I’ve never been penalized that much, ever, and they can’t get one called on them,” said Keeling, who has coached high schools and colleges in Texas since 1959.

The Cowboys’ mistakes often set up scores for Stout, and taking that into consideration, Keeling wasn’t unhappy with his team’s play. Aside from the mistakes at such inopportune times, Keeling learned that his team belonged on the field with another Top 15 program, which is what they came north to find out.

“We’re going to be alright,” he said. “We’re big and strong and powerful, and without the penalties, I don’t think [the 31-21 loss] happens.”

Meierkort, in his life-of-the-party, be-sure-to-praise-the-other-team way, was happy to start this season with a win against a challenging opponent.

“Hardin-Simmons is good offensively,” he said. “We don’t need to see them again.”

While the stadium empties, Pat goes crazy on his laptop in the press box tracking down scores and posting stories to the Web site. Most people get to enjoy college football Saturdays; Pat gets frantic.

Since the site needs so much immediate attention on Saturdays, I figure out every interesting thing to do in an empty press box before we hustle over to Eau Claire. Just 30 minutes down the road, the Blugolds are hosting Augsburg, which like many Minnesota schools is actually just a short drive from Northwestern Wisconsin.

Eau Claire plays off campus at a municipal complex called Carson Park. The football stadium seats 6,500 and has a classic feel to it, unlike the aura the brand-spanking new turf gives Stout’s stadium.

By the time Pat, Ryan and I walk in, we have a friendly bet going on how much Augsburg will be trailing by. Eau Claire was up 7-0, so I win the bet, but only because I chose third and 13-0 and 22-0 were already taken.

We don’t look so bad for thinking the Auggies don’t stand much chance, as the score balloons to 14-0, 21-0 and 31-0. Augsburg scores and makes it 31-14 with two seconds left in the first half, and I’m thinking they just might make this interesting.

Then the ensuing kickoff is nearly returned for a touchdown by the Blugolds’ Derrick Sikora, who is pushed out of bounds at the 1-yard line. (His runback was later nullified by penalty).

During halftime, Pat sings along with the Eau Claire marching band’s Michael Jackson-themed performance.

Someone in the press box asks aloud: “Which is worse, their interpretation of Michael Jackson, or Pat’s interpretation of their interpretation?”

I think we all know the answer. I was actually impressed that a Division III school, even a big one like Eau Claire, had a marching band.

In the second half, the message that the Auggies aren’t supposed to be in this game apparently hasn’t reached them. They score to make it 31-20, then stop Eau Claire and get the ball back.

Augsburg quarterback Tony George gets a first down on a fourth-and-1 quarterback sneak, then scrambles for another first down near midfield. But an illegal block in the back nullifies the run, making it third-and-9 instead of first-and-10. Augsburg punts, Sikora has another big return and Eau Claire’s Nels Frederickson hooks up with Erik Ferguson on a post to make it 38-20. This one’s ovah! Sikora adds an interception return for a TD in the 52-20 UWEC win.

What have we learned today, kids? Penalties will kill a drive, and make a team lose the only thing more important than momentum: the game.

Pat and Ryan tinker with the site and round up the late scores and stories from the West Coast (although Pat will still be trying to locate the Pomona-Pitzer score on the way to the airport the next morning). I make fast friends with just about everyone still hanging around the press box. More than an hour after the game, we are the last to leave the press box for the second time that day. That’s right, some people shut down bars, we shut down press boxes.

Man, we’re dorks.

So if you’ve never seen a football game in Mississippi or Wisconsin, now you know how Division III football is done from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes. I promise I’ll come up with an original idea for next week.

Poll positions
Now that the AFCA has released its first poll of the season, there are three that are released weekly during the season — counting the Top 25 and that of another “small college expert.”

Given that polls are by nature an inexact science, I thought it might be fun to compare and contrast some of the rankings.

We all had Mount Union at No.1 and then St. John’s — okay, that part was easy. In fact, the other two polls had the same top five, with Trinty (Texas), Rowan and Linfield at three, four and five. The voters, I suspect, have tried to project what might happen a little more, putting Baldwin-Wallace at No. 3. But in Division III the same characters often end the season in the playoffs, so relying on how last year went until someone beats those same old teams is a pretty solid poll strategy. It isn’t mine, but I imagine it works allright.

But after the top five, it gets fun.

Brockport State is seventh, ninth or 23rd, depending on who you ask. Wittenberg comes in at 10, 13 or 19. Mary Hardin-Baylor: 6, 11 or 16. Coe was ranked 20th, first in also receiving votes with 144 points and 13th in also receiving votes with 9.

In one poll, Kings Point was ranked 25th. Merchant Marine was 39th elsewhere. They’re the same institution.

A Moravian graduate co-worker loves to down Hampden-Sydney for me, as long as I’m willing to return the favor and insult his archrival Muhlenberg. The Mules, 19th in one poll, received three and zero votes in other polls. We could deal with that.

Hampden-Sydney, however, must be respected, as they checked in at 16, 23 and 40. I’m willing to root for the Tigers, arch rival of my alma mater, but only because the better coach Marty Favret looks, the better I look for having intercepted his quarterback four times in a game when he was the offensive coordinator at Catholic.

Man, I’m such a has-been.

Anyway, I digressed from the original point. How can The College of New Jersey be 24th, 38th and unranked and receiving zero votes?

Well that’s Division III for you, where compared scores and past success can get you ranked by pollsters who may never have even seen a highlight of your team, much less a full game.

Of course, as Pat pointed out this weekend, the poll doesn’t matter in the end, as Division III teams get to sort out their champion where it should take place: on the field.

Press coverage
Respect the pun (get it? Press coverage?). Then take a glance at what national and major media outlets are saying about Division III football:

From Paul Daugherty of the Cincinnati Enquirer:
“Sports at Washington & Lee ‘help to strengthen the overall development of the student, mentally and physically’ says Mike Walsh, the athletic director. Is that a little lofty? What do you expect from a school where the average SAT is 1371? All it really means is, sports are good for you, but don’t get a big head if you play. Econ 101 is at 8 in the morning, stud. Be there.”

From Terry Bowden on
“To new coach Mike Hoskins of Division III Rockford College (Ill.): What in the world are you doing beating Trinity Bible College (N.D.) by a D-III record score of 105-0? I know it’s the job of the defense to hold the score down, but that is inexcusable. No one deserves to be humiliated like that, especially a bunch of guys at a Bible college. At least we know they’re praying for your forgiveness.”

From American Football Monthly, via Westminster (Mo.) Web site:
“The football-coaching trade magazine recently named 10 coaches in each division from high school to college that it considers will make such an impact in 2003 that they will be on everyone’s short list [to hire] in 2004.
Joe Loth, Otterbein
Kevin Ricca, Hampden-Sydney
Tim McNulty, Kings Point
Mike Sirianni, Washington & Jefferson
Scott Westering, Pacific Lutheran
Joe Perella, Case Western Reserve
Matt Kelchner, Christopher Newport
Bob Colbert, Bridgewater (Va.)
Erik Raeburn, Coe College
Scott Pingel, Westminster (Mo.)”

From Pat Coleman (yes, that Pat Coleman) on
“[A]t the Division III level we don’t get a real spring practice period — only this year did the NCAA allow any contact between coaches and players during what they term the non-traditional segment. Meanwhile, Division III baseball and tennis teams are competing in the fall and the spring. In the end, these reforms cut back on practices for Division III schools. Whether this was what prompted 18-year Ohio Northern head coach Tom Kaczkowski to violate NCAA rules by holding an extra month of practice — not to mention bringing his team in a week early — we don’t know. But this is what passes for a major scandal in Division III.”

Stat of the week
It’s hard to overlook a 41-carry, 385-yard day from St. John Fisher’s Jason Meyers, and it’s hard to pass over Paul Bryant’s six touchdowns for Bridgewater State (Mass.). But, as I did last week by failing to note Randell Knapp’s 310 receiving yards, those that get love on the front page won’t get repeated under stat of the week. ATN dug up two more stats to be appreciated:

Whitworth was penalized 17 times for 145 yards, and defeated NAIA Montana Tech 20-3. Wait, guess that ruins the moral of my Wisconsin story.

How about three cheers for accuracy, then? UW-Stevens Point quarterback Scott Krause completed 95% percent of his passes in a 63-0 win against Tri-State (Ind.). He was 18 for 19 for 269 yards, threw five touchdown passes to four receivers and (go figure) set a school record for completion percentage.

National game of the week
No. 3 Baldwin-Wallace at No. 1 Mount Union, Alliance, Ohio, 1:30 p.m.
What do we really need to tell you about this game? It’s the seven-time national champions and winners of 97 of their past 98 games hosting the last team to beat them in a regular-season contest. Baldwin-Wallace, on a streak of 36 non-losing seasons, won 23-10 in 1994. The Purple Raiders have won 77 straight OAC games since, but last year didn’t put away the Yellow Jackets until Chris Kern intercepted a pass in the end zone on the final play of a 28-21 win. Much more on this game on both schools’ athletic sites, plus, and our own broadcast of the game on Saturday.

Honorable mentions: UW-Eau Claire at No. 2 St. John’s, No. 13 Ithaca at Hartwick, DePauw at No. 15 Hanover, No. 17 Lycoming at Wilkes, No. 25 Kings Point at Springfield.

Hindsight game of the week
How about No. 15 Hanover holding off Thomas More 33-30 in overtime? I definitely could have chosen UW-Stout vs. Hardin-Simmons, as it lived up to its billing as a battle between ranked contenders, but there’s something about a great finish that I appreciate. The Panthers held the Saints to a field goal, then scored on a 26-yard TD pass to win. UW-La Crosse also scored 15 in the fourth to defeat Illinois Wesleyan, and Guilford had a freshman kicker boot the game-winning field goal with four seconds left.

Hindsight HMs: Kalamazoo 28, No. 16 Wabash 21; UW-LaCrosse 22, Illinois Wesleyan 12; No. 23 Central 3, Augustana 0; Guilford 27, Methodist 24; Greenville 28, Westminster (Mo.) 27, 2 OT

Your nation, your words
As always, Around the Nation thrives on reader feedback. We’re interested in your thoughts on three points this week, and when you write in, please include your full name, age, hometown and school you root for. Or use our handy feedback form.

1. What exactly is the mission of Division III? What should it be?
2. Whether you have a personal relationship or watch from afar, send ATN your most vivid memories of St. John’s John Gagliardi over the years. The namesake of the Division’s top trophy and a 400-game winner is known more for his daring to be different than the statistics. Tell us what you remember about him as he approaches the record.
3. What are the coolest, most unique names you see around the division? Each year, a friend and I comb through Division I preview magazines looking for the next Pig Prather, Craphonso Thorpe or LaBrandon Toefield. Tell ATN the best names you’ve spotted around the country.

Attention SIDs
Around the Nation is looking for new directories, media guides, record books and other helpful tools from both conference and school SIDs. The information is used when compiling Around the Nation, and is a great help for feature stories. SIDs can also add to football-only release lists or e-mail us the Web address of online guides, but please label correspondence as such in the subject line. Snail mail to Keith McMillan, 14010 Smoketown Rd., Woodbridge, Va., 22192.