October 7, 2010

Around the Nation postcards

We know that most of our readers have an intense devotion to one D-III team. Occasionally folks have ties to more than one. But no matter how many you follow, you’ll never be able to be in two places at once. And you’ll rarely get a chance to travel around the country and see D-III games in their finest settings.

So we do it for you.

Saturday, contributor Adam Turer was at Franklin-Mount St. Joseph, Around the West’s Tim Walsh was at Linfield-Willamette and publisher Pat Coleman was at St. Thomas-St. John’s. Around the Nation asked all three to describe what it was like to be there on Saturday, keeping in mind those of us who were at another game or otherwise unable to be there.

Adam Turer, at Mount St. Joseph:

Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference commissioner Chris Ragsdale has a full schedule during the school year, trying to attend as many HCAC events as possible. This includes traveling to a different football game each Saturday, trying to see every HCAC team in action each season.

The Oct. 2 showdown between conference favorites Franklin and Mount St. Joseph was without a doubt the easiest trip for him to schedule. Franklin-Mount St. Joseph is not your traditional Division III rivalry. There is no bell, bucket, or axe on the line when the two teams square off each season. In fact, each program plays its annual rivalry game against a different opponent. For Franklin, it's the matchup against Hanover for the Victory Bell. Mount St. Joseph closes each season battling nearby Thomas More in the Bridge Bowl. After trading places at the top of the HCAC for the past five seasons, it is impossible to ignore what is at stake when the Grizzlies and Lions play. The head coaches and players might not admit it, but there's a strong chance that every member of each program had Oct. 2 circled on his calendar since spring ball.

“Since my freshman year, I’ve seen the intensity grow,” said Lions running back Rob Damaschko.  “You notice it in practice.  It’s gone from a regular conference game to basically the championship game.”

“It’s been nice to see this rivalry evolve over the past few years,” Ragsdale said.  “I think everybody thought this would be a close game.”

You could feel the nervous energy in the air at Schueler Field in Delhi, just west of Cincinnati, on Saturday. It seemed that every person in the stadium knew what a win would mean for their team. They also knew that a loss would be a devastating blow to that team's postseason hopes. Despite a combined 82-26 record over the past five full seasons (including postseason; each team entered this year 41-13 since the beginning of 2005), the Grizzlies and Lions have reached the postseason together just once, in 2007. Every other season, the HCAC's only playoff participant was the automatically qualified league champion.

“It’s always been a huge rivalry, especially in the past seven years when one of us has won the league each year,” said Franklin OL and captain Chad Schenkel.  “The implications have grown, but we try to treat it as just another game.”

The first person I met on Saturday was Charlie, a Mount St. Joseph legend. I met him early in the day, when he was gatekeeping the team and media parking lot next to the stadium. It was just one of the many responsibilities that Charlie handles on game day.

Charlie Wrublewski began washing windows on campus in 1980 and has been a member of the school’s facilities team for the past three decades. He helps set up and take down nearly every event on campus. On this day, he was wearing his custom Lions football jersey, with pink accents to go with the day’s theme. During games, Charlie watches from the track between the bleachers and sideline, often turning to wave and talk to his many fans and friends in the seats. He guards the blue and gold MSJ bell, which he rings after each Lions score. On this day, he spent far less time ringing that bell than anyone anticipated.

October seemed to eliminate any chance of an Indian Summer in southwest Ohio. After an unusually warm September, football weather arrived just in time for the Franklin-Mount St. Joseph showdown. The temperature dropped below 60 and rain started to fall late in the second quarter. Umbrellas popped up and the stadium lights flipped on, but not much changed on the field. Franklin quarterback Kyle Ray passed for three scores, while his counterpart, MSJ’s Chris Howland, threw two picks, lost a fumble, and was benched at halftime. Franklin’s defense, led by linebacker Teddy Henkle (six tackles, one interception and one sack), made the biggest impact, shutting down an offense that averaged 32.3 points and 440.3 yards per game entering the contest.

Franklin continued to dominate the home team, much to the delight of the many Grizzlies fans in attendance. When I asked one of them if they always travel this well or if the numbers were inflated by the importance of the day’s matchup, I was quickly corrected. Franklin’s fans always turn out, I was told, even for the season opener at Carthage. On this day just west of Cincinnati, Franklin’s large fan base was rewarded with a postgame victory song sung by the winning team.

Mount St. Joseph, like many other high school, college, and professional sports programs, was celebrating Pink Game Day during the first weekend of October. On the plaza just inside the sports complex, MSJ students and parents were selling spirit wear and baked goods to raise money for breast cancer research. The Lions’ captains donned specially made blue and pink uniforms during pregame warmups and changed into their blue and white jerseys just prior to kickoff. Several players sported pink gloves and pink athletic tape during the game.

In addition to the large contingent from Franklin, the Lions drew a very good crowd of their own. The crowd was made up of mostly alumni and parents of current and former players. One of the benefits of a school just outside a large city is that many alumni remain in the area after graduation. Fans of all ages tailgated in the lot about 50 yards from the sports complex, which was built in 2004. Between the lot and the gates to the stadium is a wooded picnic area where a group of children played pickup football, trying to emulate their favorite player, Lions senior wide receiver Derick Tabar. Joseph the Lion, the only D-III mascot I’ve seen in action, did his best to rally the crowd.

After the game ended and despite the Lions getting blown out, the mood in the tailgate area had hardly changed. Alums and parents still feasted and talked football, the same children resumed their pickup game and players started to trickle out of the locker room, hoping that they could quickly put the loss behind them. The way it looks now, the Lions will have to run the table if they want to join the Grizzlies in the postseason.

Tim Walsh, at Linfield:

This week, as in almost every other week, Linfield coach Joseph Smith began his news conference with a fairly deadpan expression. No matter the opponent, Smith’s answers can sometimes be frustratingly bland – though they do give credence to his motto of preparing for every game the same way.

But a couple of minutes into this week’s conference, Smith’s expression changed.

“I told our guys … ‘I think this game can go one of two ways: I think we can run the field with these guys – we can flat put it to them. Or we can kind of struggle along and make it a tight game and have to win it at the end.’ ”

Then the coach cracked a smile.

“It was very pleasing and very satisfying to have it be the first option.”

That’s probably as close as Smith will ever come to publicly admitting that last Saturday’s 35-7 undressing of Willamette brought any more fulfillment than other victories do, but there’s no denying the fact that for Linfield’s coaches, players, and fans, thumping the Bearcats carries special significance.

The Pacific Northwest may have a laid-back reputation, but the antipathy between Willamette and Linfield is very real – stretching back to the days when the mayors of Salem and McMinnville would place public bets on their teams the week of the big game. (The traditional wager was a bowl of Salem cherries against a McMinnville turkey.)

In 1997, en route to the NAIA national title game, Willamette’s Liz Heaston became the first female to score in a college football game. With the national media watching, then-head coach Dan Hawkins made sure that game was against Linfield.

In 1998, the Wildcats got their revenge, clinching their collegiate-record 43rd consecutive winning season with a thrilling come-from-behind victory at home against the Bearcats.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that Linfield and Willamette have finished 1-2 in the Northwest Conference six times in the last eight years – and are expected to do so again this season – meaning that the NWC’s automatic playoff bid was probably up for grabs last Saturday too.

With all that at stake, the Wildcats dominated both lines, throttled the Bearcats’ fly offense, and threw the ball at will against an overmatched Willamette secondary. For the three-fourths of the overflow crowd at Maxwell Field that was cheering for the purple and red, it was, as Smith put it, “very satisfying.”

For the Bearcats, it was another disastrous result at a place where they’ve won exactly twice in the last 36 years. Just prior to Willamette’s last win at Maxwell (2008), head coach Mark Speckman – as outspoken as Smith is reserved – had one idea for how to solve the problem.

“I mean, if they were to call in the National Guard and blow up that stadium and move the game to a neutral site … I think I’d be okay with that.”

After Saturday’s loss, some Bearcats might agree with him.

Pat Coleman, at St. John’s:

I’d seen Homecoming at St. John’s, and I’d seen St. Thomas play at St. John’s. I knew the combination would be worth the trip, even if it might take forever to get on and off of campus.

I don’t know if 16,421 people were truly in the stadium on Saturday, but it was definitely more crowded than the 409 game, in 2003 when John Gagliardi won his 409th career game. I would have pegged it about a thousand less than that, but still the largest crowd I’ve ever seen. And with St. John’s students in their bleacher stand behind one end zone, and St. Thomas fans across the way and in temporary seating brought in just for this game, as well as fans seated on the side of the hill in the natural bowl, there was plenty of noise.

Imagine the postcard-ideal day for a football game and this was it. Mid-50s and sunny, with the leaves of the trees surrounding the natural bowl just about to turn, there wasn’t anything this game lacked from an atmosphere perspective.

People walked in to the game from multiple miles away. We tried to get onto St. John’s campus the back way, and were nearly turned away with many others by county police. And this was two and a half hours before kickoff.

Students come out in force for St. John’s regular season games in general, and the St. Thomas student fan base does for this game in particular. There were many ... let’s say, un-Christian sentiments being displayed on the fronts and backs of shirts of all colors, but especially in purple.

St. John’s also has one of the best tailgating scenes in Division III football. This being Homecoming, even more alumni, and former players especially, were in attendance. One of them, Jeff Norman, still holds an NCAA playoff record, as he’s one of a handful of players who has rushed for five touchdowns in a postseason game. That game, a 46-7 win against Augustana, was the first step in a three-step process on the road to the 1976 national championship.

Norman talked about the trip to Phenix City, Ala., for Stagg Bowl IV against Towson State. This being 1976, at that point most of the kids on the team had never been on an airplane or out of the upper midwest. The Stagg Bowl was a big deal in the local community even then, just four years in, as Norman recalled the hotel the team stayed in being proud of having hosted the winning team each of the previous three years.

The weather wasn’t pristine for that game, but it was certainly warmer than Minnesota would have been on Dec. 4. And Norman would end up the hero. Towson State had rallied from a 28-0 deficit in the fourth quarter to tie the game with 30 seconds remaining, but Norman threw a 58-yard pass to Jim Roeder and then kicked a 19-yard field goal on the final play of the game to lift the Johnnies to a 31-28 win.

On Saturday, it came down to a similar kick at the end of the game, and about 80 percent of the fans went home disappointed on Saturday, but it was a day that people should be talking about for years to come. Not only did a rivalry game go to overtime, but it was in front of a record crowd and ended in stunning fashion.

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Keith McMillan

Keith McMilllan, who has been a columnist for D3football.com since 2000, has provided color commentary on D3football.com's national broadcasts of the Stagg Bowls. He played at Randolph-Macon in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference for four years and covered it for two more.

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