October 21, 2010

Focusing on focus

Sean Cavanaugh
Sean Cavanaugh and the Hampden-Sydney Tigers have had their good weeks and not-so-good weeks, like nearly every college football team, but are aiming at a second consecutive 10-0 regular season.
Hampden-Sydney athletics photo

Division III is remarkably fortunate to be able to crown the right champion each year. But trying to figure out the 32 teams most worthy of playing for that title, or aiming to rank the country’s 25 best, is at times a flawed effort because of one football truism: A team is not necessarily going to give its best effort for 10 – or 15 – consecutive weeks.

It’s a hurdle for coaches as well, as old as the game itself. Some of the game’s greats philosophized over it. Pacific Lutheran’s Frosty Westering talked about playing against your best self. John Gagliardi of St. John’s developed ‘Winning with Nos,’ dispensing with some of the game’s wasted time and gruff practices, and concentrating on fundamentals and camaraderie. Local legend around Alliance, Ohio tells of Larry Kehres’ fierce respect for – and perhaps even fear of – opponents, which filters down to Mount Union players, who in turn rarely are even pushed by those teams, let alone beaten.

The team that has defeated the Purple Raiders, and with two championships in three seasons under Lance Leipold has become the current standard-bearer, made a point during last season’s championship run to not get ahead of itself. After losing the previous year’s Stagg Bowl to Mount Union, UW-Whitewater players were reminded they couldn’t avenge a loss in Salem, Va. without first taking care of business in Wisconsin.

That’s still true.

“Nelson Edmonds, our running backs coach, was just saying that to our players,” Leipold said this week. “If you have aspirations of playing well in Week 15, you better play well in Weeks 6 and 7.”

So how does a coaching staff draw the best collective effort from a group of 18- to 22-year-olds, each with their own methods of motivation and problem-solving, and with unique away-from-the-field concerns?

“As you know, it’s a grind and you have to be creative,” says Marty Favret, who is in his 11th season at Hampden-Sydney. “You kind of break your season into sections … I really try to keep practice varied each day. You get in a routine and it’s boring. I try to keep it fresh and keep them having fun.”

Leipold recalls coaching some talented teams at Division II Nebraska-Omaha, where he worked from 1994 to 2000 and was offensive coordinator from 2004 to ’06.

“I think we might have at times worn our kids out,” he said. “By the time we got to the playoffs, they didn’t want to the season to get over, but they just wanted to get to game day. That’s the balancing act all coaches have to deal with.”

For some coaches, the battle is different than it is for others. While UW-Whitewater might be trying to fight complacency to be sure no player looks too far ahead, other programs, like St. Lawrence, are just beginning to develop consistency.

After starting the season with three consecutive losses – to Ithaca, Norwich and Alfred, who are a combined 15-4 – the Saints have won three of four and, in a surprise, surged to the top of the Liberty League.

“There’s certainly been some transformation mentally and X’s-and-O’s-wise,” says Mark Raymond, who spent seven years as Ithaca’s defensive coordinator and actually left coaching in 2007 before his hire in May. “It takes time to grow into a system and have guys realize what we can do within it.”

Marcus Washington, St. Lawrence

St. Lawrence junior running back Marcus Washington has put up 100-yard games against two of the Liberty League's traditional powers: Hobart and Union.
St. Lawrence athletics photo by Tara Freeman

The taste of winning, including Saturday’s 23-14 triumph at league power Union, hasn’t hurt.

“As we’ve gotten more efficient, the confidence has grown,” Raymond said. “It’s a matter of starting to put things together.”

The Saints aren’t the only team who’ve had some ups and downs. Defiance, whose 1-3 start included a 40-14 loss at Adrian and a 42-7 defeat against Franklin, has rallied with consecutive victories against Mount St. Joseph and Earlham. Kalamazoo, like St. Lawrence, lost its first three (to Bluffton, Manchester and Rose-Hulman) and since has won three of four (Benedictine, Albion and Olivet, with a loss to Hope in between).

For programs where losing is too frequent or programs on the rise, motivation isn’t an issue.

“These guys are hungry for success,” Raymond said. “They want to win as much as anybody else. But it comes down to preparation and execution on Saturdays. Wanting to win is not enough.”

For programs that have grown accustomed to winning, human nature can mean some teams are taken lightly.

“They call it the Lou Holtz thing, where every team on the schedule is the greatest team,” Favret said. “You don’t want to insult your players’ intelligence. There are certain teams – not many – where you say you’re playing yourself. This week, we have to use this as an opportunity to get better.”

“Yes, we game plan for each opponent, but a lot of what we work on is getting better ourselves,” Leipold said. “When we worry about that, we get good results. Sometimes it’s about evaluating yourself and not so much about the scoreboard.”

That was the basis of Westering’s philosophy. And like Westering’s championship-level teams at PLU, Leipold knows being “the team” on everyone’s schedule is almost a built-in guard against complacency.

“You have to have that same approach each week, kind of one of those ‘Respect All, Fear None’ type deals,” Leipold said. “We’re going to get everyone’s best shot,” he says, recalling a game in 2007 when eighth-place UW-Platteville (2-8) played a 21-7 game against a Whitewater team that would go on to be national champions. “They can really propel their program, or salvage a disappointing season by beating a top-10 team, so you have to guard against that.”

And consistent winner or one that’s just learning how, the method is surely something you’ve heard before.

“We try to take it one week at a time,” says Raymond, acknowledging it as “an old slogan.”

“If you don’t stay focused on what’s happening now,” says Leipold, “the things you want to happen in November and December aren’t going to happen. Those things are clichés, but true.”

“The games are getting bigger and bigger,” says Raymond, “but our approach has to stay the same.”

Despite those efforts, teams can be different from week to week. Favret’s Tigers won four of their first six games by eight points or less, then turned in a 48-10 victory over an Emory and Henry team that started the season 4-0. Rival Randolph-Macon, meanwhile, won its first six games by 11 points or more, then lost 42-28 to Washington and Lee on Saturday.

Schoolwork, family issues and social life affect players off the field. “We probably get a fraction of them that we come to notice as coaches,” Leipold says.

On the field, specific matchups, injuries and weather can add to that to create, at times, more variables than a coach can control.

“You get fans coming up to you before the game asking ‘are you ready?’ says Favret, who believes practices help demonstrate a team’s mind-set. “I have no idea. I thought we were in a load of trouble against Emory & Henry and we come out and do that. You just never know, and that’s kind of what makes the game interesting.”

When fun and games become serious
The risk of severe injury on the field is a hot-button topic among football fans this week, following an NFL Sunday with more violent collisions than any in recent memory. In some forums, the discussion has become about the NFL’s reaction to the hits – increased enforcement of its already-in-place rules – and it hasn’t been a particularly thoughtful discussion. In some cases, it's been angry and resentful – even skeptical of the motives -- of the NFL’s efforts to prevent serious injury.

No one will ever legislate the violence out of football. It’s precisely the combination of speed, power and necessary intellect that makes the game so attractive. And while the larger discussion really should be one about promoting form tackling over leading with the head and careless helmet-to-helmet contact, it takes no more than a split second to remember we’re all on the same team.

When a player is seriously injured, the stadium falls silent. Players kneel next to their opponents with blank stares on their faces, as some begin to talk to God. “Please let him be okay.” “Just don’t let him be paralyzed.”

Chris Norton, right At Luther, far from the bright lights of the NFL, Brandon Boles is talking to God, praying openly for Chris Norton to be okay. Boles, an offensive lineman for the Norse, is tweeting good vibes and heavenly hopes for Norton’s recovery from the broken neck and spinal cord injury he suffered against Central via @BrandonBoles. (Norton is on the far right, wearing 16.)

Communicating by Twitter and CaringBridge.org is very 2010, but unfortunately, serious injuries are nothing new, not even on our level, where the players aren’t as physically imposing and the hits aren’t nearly as fierce as in the NFL.

I can’t forget La Verne’s Rollie Dykstra, (L.A. Times), UW-Eau Claire’s Justin Greenwood (2007 update), Hardin-Simmons’ Shay Ratliff or Alfred’s Julio Fuentes (2009 update). The connection is not because I knew any of them or ever truly told their stories. It’s that players and former players know it could have been any of us.

It’s no stretch to say all of Division III wishes Chris Norton the best possible outcome. There was good news in Tuesday’s Des Moines Register, and with any luck, or answered prayers, there will be more to come. You can support Norton, financially or otherwise, via HelpChrisNorton.com, and call in during this week’s Inside the HuddLLe show (Sunday, 6:30-9 ET; calls begin at 7:30), when a sports concussion expert from UCLA joins Frank Rossi, Eric Ren and James Baker to discuss the issue. Also, here’s the NCAA’s primer on its rules for safety.

For the love of the game
There’s no real good way to transition out of that issue into something else. But the game does bring us more good times than bad, which is something Around the Nation has long celebrated. And because we want you to be able to walk around wearing your Division III pride, ATN is thrilled to debut its first originally-designed, just-for-us, T-shirt of the week. Keep an eye on this space over the next 24 hours for the design and ordering info.

If the response to the first shirt is supportive, ATN will make a new one available each week, an a variety of D-III-friendly color combinations and styles. We’ll open the door to suggestions and send a free shirt to anyone whose idea we use. Snap a photo of yourself wearing one under your pads or elsewhere on game day or on campus, and ATN will run it. Send to keith.mcmillan@D3sports.com.

Over/under
Since the beginning of October, ATN has been examining teams that are ranked a little higher in the D3football.com top 25 than they probably should be and those that are flying below the radar:

Overranked

No. 15 Trine: Aesthetically, I don’t have a problem with the Thunder in the mid-teens, as I love what coach Matt Land has done taking also-ran Tri-State and making them conference power and attendance leader Trine. Here’s my beef: Although you can’t fault a team for only beating who it plays, you also can’t consider all 7-0 records equal. I see at least two teams – St. John Fisher and Pacific Lutheran -- whose unbeaten marks contain wins against teams that have impressed otherwise. With Trine’s .316 opponents’ winning percentage (18-39, including 10-21 from past opponents, ranking dead last, 202nd among teams with at least nine D-III opponents), all I see going for them by comparison is having started in the poll earlier.

No. 25 Wabash: If a 5-1 record against middling competition makes a team poll-worthy, then we should call into question the record of all 30 one-loss teams. The seven others in the top 25 all lost to other ranked teams, as did unranked Rowan, Baldwin-Wallace and Illinois Wesleyan. And there are teams like Alfred, whose opponents to date (16-13, .571) are more impressive than the Little Giants’ (12-18, .400) and have solid wins (the Saxons beat 5-1 Springfield).

Underranked

No. 19 St. John Fisher: Only Utica has been within 20 points of the Cardinals, in a 35-24 loss, and there’s little to suggest some of the other 7-0 records ranked higher include wins over teams better than Ithaca and Utica. Once again, a team that wasn’t coming off a deep playoff run last season and started the season off voters’ radar is taking too long to get this year’s respect.

Unranked Rowan: I thought there should have been more bounce after their win against Cortland State, considering they’ve also beaten 5-1 Lycoming. But the 26-7 loss to Montclair State might be holding the Profs back.

Discuss the top 25 on Post Patterns.

Pool B watch
We’ll get into regional rankings, strength of schedule and other playoff potentials in the next ATN, but if you can’t wait that long, there’s a pretty good running wrapup of the Pool B picture on Post Patterns.

Pool C watch
For now, let’s say any team with two or more losses is out of the picture, though that might not be the case when the 32 teams are selected. Of the nation’s 21 unbeaten teams and 30 one-loss teams, four are NESCAC, and all are in competition for automatic bids except those teams from the ACFC, ECFC and UAA (because they don’t have one) and the LL, USAC, UMAC and NathCon (because every team in those conferences has two losses or more).

There are still quite a few head-to-head clashes left that could clear things up, or further muddy pictures, like Linfield-PLU, Wartburg-Central, Wesley-Salisbury, Wittenberg-Wabash and Hampden-Sydney/Randolph-Macon. The SCIAC has four one-loss teams. The NEFC Bogan has three, only one of which can face off in the title game with playoffs on the line against the Boyd champ.

For now, here are the one-loss teams chasing an unbeaten for an automatic bid: Alfred and Springfield, Central and Coe, Delaware Valley/Lycoming winner, Hardin-Simmons, Illinois Wesleyan, Linfield, Muhlenberg, North Central/Wheaton loser, Ohio Northern and Baldwin-Wallace, Randolph-Macon and Bridgewater (Va.), Rowan and Cortland State, Wabash

Who are those guys?
Just two games against non-D-III opposition this weekend, and one involves technically-not-D-III Newport News. Here’s Week 8’s full schedule:

vs. Division I, FCS (0-0 in Week 7, 1-1 in 2010)

None

vs. Division II (0-1 in Week 7, 1-5 in 2010)

None

vs. NAIA (4-0 in Week 7, 25-13 in 2010)

Huntingdon at Webber International (independent)
Newport News at Southern Virginia (independent)

Five Ways to Saturday
Follow Around the Nation …

Throughout the week on Twitter. Follow @D3Keith. It’s a sporadic stream of short-form minutiae, most of it D-III related.

On Around the Nation’s Post Patterns thread, at the top of the General Football board. That’s the best place to ask a question about a topic raised in the column or continue a discussion unrelated to this week’s ATN.

Mondays, Pat Coleman and I wrap up the week that was in our podcast. Download from iTunes or listen to it in the Daily Dose’s media player.

When the column publishes on Thursdays.

In Friday morning’s Triple Take, on The Daily Dose.

On Saturdays, the The Daily Dose features a running game day thread, for real-time reactions from across the country. When ATN travels, find bonus observations there or on Twitter.

The press box
Readers: Around the Nation encourages your opinions on the column, the top 25, moments to remember for the year-in-review, insight on rivalry and trophy games, road trip suggestions (non-Saturday afternoon kickoffs that can be paired with a game at a traditional time work especially well) and whatever else crosses your mind. Readers can best get a response by posting on Around the Nation's running thread on Post Patterns (under general football). Send email to keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com or use our feedback form.

Sports Information Directors: Both the e-mail address and street address are new this season. To contact Keith McMillan, use keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com, or mail to D3football.com, 3836 Appaloosa Dr., Woodbridge, Va., 22192.

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Ryan Tipps

Ryan is D3football.com's Senior Editor and begins as National Columnist in fall 2014. He was the Around the Mid-Atlantic Columnist from 2007 to 2011; has worked on all but one of the preseason Kickoff publications; has done game-day writing and photography and the pregame broadcast at the championship Stagg Bowl in Salem for almost a decade; and has taken photos at the Final Four for D3hoops.com. He's also on the selection staff for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year award.

2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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