October 28, 2010

Will the East rise again?

Jim Butterfield at the Stagg Bowl
Jim Butterfield's Ithaca Bombers won the Stagg Bowl in 1979, 1988 (above) and 1991. But nobody from the East Region has won it since.
Ithaca College archives

At least the sun still rises in the East. It’s been a long time since a championship banner has.

The last East Region team spotted hoisting a Stagg Bowl trophy actually predates the 1993 move to Division III’s Titletown. Ithaca won its 1991 national championship in Bradenton, Fla. Rowan, which had won at Mount Union the week before, stunningly lost the 1999 Stagg Bowl to Pacific Lutheran. And no team from D-III’s East Region, which cuts from Southeastern Pennsylvania up through New Jersey, New York and New England, has been back to Salem, Va. since.

What gives? Is there a talent gap? Are there legitimate limitations? Or is just a coincidence that D-III’s latest powerhouses have sprouted out of other regions?

And, especially given the interest surrounding the release on Wednesday of the NCAA selection committee’s first set of regional rankings, will an East Region team ever get to Salem if the road contains a detour through Alliance, Ohio?

Around the Nation boils down the answers to those questions in this week’s column and next.

Can an East Region team win a Stagg Bowl?
Of course one can. But in an era dominated by Mount Union from the North Region and UW-Whitewater from the West, when will an Eastern team break through? And how?

Wesley coach Mike Drass, whose Delaware-based South Region team has come close, with three semifinal appearances in the past five seasons, says there needs to be a confluence of events.

“If you’re going to go from that point to the next, everything needs to be tied together,” said Drass, whose teams have played against West, South, North and East region teams. “You’ve got to have every part of your team operating at that top level. I don’t know that any of us have done it yet; don’t get me wrong, teams are trying.”

Drass was talking specifically about having every aspect of the on-field operation be at the top level to compete with Mount Union or UW-Whitewater. But he and other coaches say that’s easier said than done. Building a consistent winner is complex, and takes time, especially in the Northeast states.

“I think the big difference between New England and Illinois,” says Endicott coach J.B. Wells, who was previously Illinois Wesleyan’s offensive coordinator and head of recruiting, “is that here you’ve got a large amount of programs jammed into a small area.”

Tim Lax
The last great East Region power got taken down by Pacific Lutheran in the 1999 Stagg Bowl. Although Rowan has been in the semifinals since, no East Region team has made it to Salem since the No. 7 West seed beat Rowan 42-13.
D3sports.com file photo by Pat Coleman

In the past ten years alone, enough new programs have sprouted in New England to warrant the creation of a new conference, the ECFC. There’s a Division I  FCS presence in the CAA, a Division II presence in the Northeast-10, plus the NEFC, NESCAC and at least one team from the Empire 8 and Liberty League.

Though Otterbein coach Joe Loth points out that many schools have different niches when it comes to recruiting, Wells based his masters thesis on the idea that most students (and student-athetes) choose a college within 150 miles of home. For a high schooler from Phoenix, that’s still true, but there are but a handful of football-playing institutions in Arizona. One from Boston, Wells says, “can throw a rock and hit a school.”

“So you’ve got a lot of schools competing for a finite number of student-athletes,” Wells says. “You create a climate where there’s only so many guys to go around.”

“It’s a great opportunity for kids coming out of school,” says longtime Springfield coach Mike DeLong. And he’s right, for potential players, the choice is theirs. For football coaches hoping to stockpile talent to create competition for starting spots and depth to guard against injuries, it’s not helpful.

“Guys have more choices,” said Wells. An Illinois Wesleyan recruit might also be considering playing at Chicago or Carthage, he said.

“Here, a kid could realistically start out with a list of a dozen schools.”

There are 20 D-III schools in Massachusetts, 14 in the other five New England states, and 17 in New York. The last 13 of the 64 East Region D-IIIs are located in New Jersey and Southeastern Pennsylvania, territory considered among the most fertile ground available for finding potential players.

“Don’t get me wrong, Delaware and Maryland is where we call home,” Drass says. “But New Jersey might be the best place in the country to recruit.”

That would partially explain why the last East Coast powerhouse hailed from the part of the Garden State closest to the Philadelphia area. Rowan made five trips to the Stagg Bowl between 1993 and 1999, and its best team might have been the one denied another Salem trip by Bridgewater in 2001’s infamous clock-stoppage game.

But the Profs, who were national semifinalists in 2004 and ’05 and are in the playoff hunt at 6-1 this season, weren’t able to maintain their stronghold.

While the lure of competing for championships helped Mount Union, St. John’s, Mary Hardin-Baylor, Linfield and Wesley bring 180 or more players to camp this August (numbers reported in Kickoff ’10), rosters in the NJAC and WIAC are capped at 100. UW-Whitewater has successfully navigated the limitation, but in New Jersey, it’s been an issue.

Unhappy endings

Since the expanded playoffs era began in 1999, here’s how the last East Region representative has been eliminated:

1999: Rowan, by PLU, 42-13, in the Stagg Bowl
2000: Springfield, vs. Widener*, 61-27, in the quarterfinals
2001: Rowan, at Bridgewater, 29-24, in the semifinals
2002: Brockport State, vs. John Carroll, 16-10 (OT), in the quarterfinals
2003: RPI, at St. John’s, 38-10, in the semifinals
2004: Rowan, at Linfield, 52-0, in the semifinals
2005: Rowan, at Mount Union, 19-17, in the semifinals
2006: St. John Fisher, at Mount Union, 26-14, in the semifinals
2007: St. John Fisher, at Mount Union, 52-10, in the quarterfinals
2008: Cortland State, at Mount Union, 41-14, in the quarterfinals
2009: Albright, at Mount Union, 55-3, in the quarterfinals
* Widener, then a South Region team, lost 70-30 at Mount Union the following week

“I think when you talk about the NJAC, what hurts them is the roster limit,” says Loth, who coached Kean in that conference before returning to his alma mater in Ohio. “It’s hard to build a senior class of 25, 35 men that the really good programs have.”

Loth says between 150 to 170 players report to camp at Otterbein each year. Because of attrition, and because D-III football is harder than it looks to some high-school hotshots, not all will finish; that’s true no matter where a program is based. But while Loth takes his extra depth and gets those players game experience in a JV program (currently 6-1), Rick Giancola, coach of NJAC leader Montclair State has no such luxury. He says he doesn’t know of any JV programs in the conference – running one takes a financial commitment to provide travel, game-day resources and more – and he certainly doesn’t have 170 players.

Once a list of 100 names are checked for academic and eligibility compliance in the NJAC, there’s almost no opportunity to add players.

“Once your roster is turned in, that’s your team,” said Giancola. “If five guys quit, now you have 95.”

And while 95 players are enough to run a program, the NJAC coaching staffs can’t make many mistakes in recruiting. They diligently prioritize.

“I have to say to a kid, ‘you’re a guy that’s on hold,’ ” Giancola says. “When they hear that, they think ‘why should I wait on Montclair State when I can go somewhere else and play?’ ”

“State schools are driven by budgets and gender equity,” says Rowan AD Joy Solomen, who is also the chair of the Division III championship selection committee. “There’s so much more parity now than there ever was.”

Tom Fischer
Montclair State and quarterback Tom Fischer might be the East Region's last hope of having a top seed in a playoff bracket.
Montclair State athletics photo

While allowing the same number of players doesn’t guarantee the talent level of one school’s 100 will match another, it makes a difference.

“Division III is one of the last places you can get a talent mismatch,” Loth said, saying some 150-player programs exist alongside 60-player programs. “Ohio State, no matter who they’re playing, they have the same number of scholarship guys.”

What’s worse, he says, is when a coaching staff changes. Division III players without a connection to the new staff or a need to stay on scholarship might not remain on board. Loth says there were about 30 players in the program when he came to Otterbein.

The 100-player limit also works for high-enrollment public schools the way it doesn’t for a small private school who depends on football to keep male enrollment up.

“A big state school, bringing in 50 more kids when it has 10,000 doesn’t make much difference,” says Loth. “At a small private school, it’s a big deal to admissions.”

Even with a diluted talent base and limits on the player pool, shouldn’t some school in the East have a magical run once in a 10-year period?

“East, South, West or North, Mount Union and Whitewater are playing at a different level than other people,” says Drass. “I don’t know if it’s the East Region or that there’s some serious talent at the top.”

East Region teams in Salem

Since the Stagg Bowl moved to Virginia in 1993, teams from schools currently in the East Region have gone 0-6:

1993: Rowan lost, 34-24, to Mount Union
1995: Rowan lost, 36-7, to UW-La Crosse
1996: Rowan lost, 56-24, to Mount Union
1997: Lycoming* lost, 61-12, to Mount Union
1998: Rowan lost, 44-24, to Mount Union
1999: Rowan lost, 42-13, to Pacific Lutheran

* Was a member of the South Region in 1997.

“I didn’t see anybody other than Mount Union or Whitewater in my four years [in Salem as a member of the selection committee],” DeLong said. “Those two programs have dominated, regardless of where they’re from. So I don’t know if it’s so much regional.”

Coaches around the country say the talent is there in the East.

Drass, by playing UW-Whitewater, Mary Hardin-Baylor and Mount Union in the playoffs, and Delaware Valley, Capital and Salisbury this regular season, has as good an idea as anybody. He singled out Delaware Valley and Montclair State as teams Wesley has played that stack up well nationally.

“I think there are going to be [East] teams out there in a given year that can win,” he said.

But he also acknowledges his Wesley team being outplayed in crunch time last year in a key area.

“The front seven, the one at Mount Union was better than ours,” Drass said.

Giancola, whose team lost to Mount Union, 62-14, in last season’s second round, agrees. Being able to gain four to six yards per rush, and create havoc defensively without having to blitz changes the game.

“Their line play was the difference,” Giancola said. “They knocked us around.”

In fact, Giancola and Drass each find that truly elite teams are strong in the trenches.

Most teams, Giancola says, can find quality skill players at wide receiver and running back, and can develop a quarterback that fits their style.

“But if you don’t have the linemen than can control the line of scrimmage,” he said, “you’re not going to be a championship team.”

Drass has identified that as a goal to help lead the way through the Stagg threshold.

“Honestly, the one thing we talked about,” he said, “is to elevate your offensive line play to the point where you can be dominant.”

Wolverines on the rise

Wesley has yet to break through to a Stagg Bowl, but it’s played in December regularly. How the third-ranked Wolverines’ past five seasons have ended:

2005: Semifinals, 58-6, at UW-Whitewater
2006: Semifinals, 44-7, at UW-Whitewater
2007: Quarterfinals, 27-10, vs. Mary Hardin-Baylor
2008: Second round, 46-14, at Mary Hardin-Baylor
2009: Semifinals, 24-7, at Mount Union

Drass, by playing a sort of barnstorming national schedule, has seen players in person or on video that stand out from North Carolina Wesleyan, Ithaca, UW-Oshkosh, Capital, St. John Fisher and Montclair State. And those are just the teams he mentioned over the course of one conversation. He said the OAC is deeper than just Mount Union; this year’s Ohio Northern, Otterbein and Baldwin-Wallace could win most conference championships. Mary Hardin-Baylor, he said, might be the best offensive line in the country, year to year. This season’s Delaware Valley team, he said, can play with anybody.

All of which brings Drass back to his original point. East teams can compete. But it takes something special to match the level of Mount Union and UW-Whitewater.

“Take a look at the teams who have won championships,” Drass said. “You can’t look at them and say they’re weak in any one area. Some of our best teams, even we couldn’t say we had no weaknesses.”

So bottom line, can an East Coast team build a champion?

“It can be done,” says DeLong. “Every year there are teams who get real close.”

“Sure,” said Giancola. “Why not? Certainly Mount Union is a unique situation. They’ve done a great job over the years. But if you look beyond Mount Union, a lot of us aren’t all that far apart.”

“Is it possible?” asks Loth. “I think it’s happening already. Rowan did it. And I think Mike Drass at Wesley is building one right now.”

Despite the obstacles, the game’s closest observers think the talent exists to break the cycle. Someone just has to actually go out in the playoffs and finish the five-week job.

“That’s on the rest of us,” Giancola said. “We have to get to that point … That’s on us as an East Region.”

(Next week’s ATN: Especially given the interest surrounding the release on Wednesday of the NCAA selection committee’s first set of regional rankings, will an East Region team ever get to Salem if the road contains a detour through Alliance, Ohio?)

Playoff primer
Before ATN launches into a discussion about playoff specifics, here are some resources to get you up to speed how things work:

If this is your first season following the playoff selection process closely, here’s a breakdown of how Division III selects its 32-team field. Knowing why there are 23 teams in Pool A, three in B and six in C will help you understand a lot of what we write about.

Pool A watch

DePauw clinched one on Saturday, and there are 22 more automatic bids to be earned in Weeks 9 (Oct. 30), 10 (Nov. 6) and 11 (Nov. 13). Here’s ATN’s quick, one-stop glance at what else is on the verge of being decided:

ASC – Mary Hardin-Baylor, virtual lock; With wins in hand against Hardin-Simmons and Louisiana College, the Crusaders would have to lose two of their final three to get leapfrogged, but probably won’t clinch until Week 10.

CC – Ursinus goes to Muhlenberg in Week 10 to play for a bid.

CCIW – The Little Brass Bell game, North Central at Wheaton, in Week 10 should provide a clincher; Augustana is still alive.

E8 – Alfred could clinch in a Week 10 home game against Ithaca. The Bombers could force a three-way tie with Alfred and St. John Fisher, while Springfield (at SJF Week 10) and Utica (at Ithaca Week 9, vs. Alfred Week 11) have key games left.

LL – St. Lawrence has already beaten Hobart and needs one more win to clinch, but doesn’t play again until Week 10.

MIAA – Trine is in control, while Adrian plays fellow contender Albion this weekend.

MAC – Having beaten Lycoming and Wilkes already, Delaware Valley’s clinching might be but a formality. Would need to lose two of three.

MIAC – St. Thomas can clinch this week with a win at Gustavus Adolphus.

NCAC – Wabash at Wittenberg in Week 10 should decide it, though Allegheny and Wooster are still alive.

NEFC – Maine Maritime is in control of the Bogan Division; WNEC goes to Endicott this week with a chance to clinch Boyd representaion in the Week 11 NEFC title game.

NJAC – Montclair State goes to Cortland State on Saturday with a chance to clinch. A loss brings Rowan in for three-way tie scenarios.

NWC – Linfield is in the driver’s seat, but either needs to beat Whitworth in Week 10 and Lewis & Clark in Week 11, or have both of those teams lose a conference game before it can clinch. PLU and Willamette would need the Wildcats to lose twice.

OAC – Mount Union can clinch Week 10 at Baldwin-Wallace; three-way tie with Ohio Northern still possible.

ODAC – Washington & Lee hosts Hampden-Sydney in Week 10, and will probably have a chance to clinch with a win. A loss would open the door for Randolph-Macon to force a three-way tie in Week 11.

PAC – Thomas More can clinch by beating Waynesburg in Week 10.

SCIAC – Cal Lutheran is in control, but might have to beat Occidental in Week 11 to make it official.

WIAC – UW-Whitewater plays its closest challengers, UW-Stevens Point and UW-Oshkosh, the next two weeks and could clinch in Week 10.

Three-way ties possible: CCIW, E8, HCAC, IIAC, NJAC, ODAC

Very much up in the air – E8, MWC, NathCon, USAC

Pool A likelies who could drop into Pool C: Hampden-Sydney, Wittenberg, Ursinus

Pool B watch

With Wesley (7-0) and Salisbury (6-1) meeting on Saturday, as well as SUNY-Maritime (8-0) and Norwich (7-1), the picture is bound to be much more clear by this time next week. Case Western Reserve (7-0) is in the mix as well.

If the undefeated teams stay that way, ATN believes they’re all in the playoff field via the three Pool B bids. A Salisbury win could push one of the Pool B teams to Pool C; A Norwich win along with it could knock both ECFC teams out of position to get one of the three Pool Bs, and strength of schedule makes them both longshots in Pool C.

In short, ECFC teams want to root against Salisbury, while the Gulls will be rooting for Norwich.

Further the Pool B discussion on Post Patterns.

Pool C watch
As discussed in this week’s ATN podcast,  we’ve identified 13 strong contenders for the 6 at-large playoff spots, based on what we know now.

All are one-loss teams except for Wheaton, which is a strong Pool A contender at 7-0. We know it or North Central will lose a head-to-head matchup on Nov. 6, and the Thunder have a stronger case for an at-large bid in case of loss right now.

Here are the contenders, ranked by NCAA strength of schedule figure. Also included are regional record, Pool A contenders it lost to, key games left, and the winning percentage to date of all the opponents on each team’s schedule. (the last number is to help gauge which direction SoS figure might move over the final three games)

1. Ohio Northern, 5-1, .635; lost to Mount Union, beat Baldwin-Wallace; None; .476
2. Rowan, 6-1, .605; lost to Montclair State, beat Cortland State; None; .508
3. Wheaton, 7-0, .591; None; plays at North Central Week 10; .619
4. Coe, 4-1, .582; beat Central, lost to Wartburg; None; .490
5. Redlands, 5-1, .581; lost to Cal Lutheran; None; .511
6. St. John Fisher, 7-1, .568; lost to Alfred; plays Springfield Week 10; .534
7. Bethel, 6-1, .560; lost to St. Thomas; None; .492
8. Hardin-Simmons, 7-1, .512; lost to Mary Hardin-Baylor; None; .528
9. Pacific Lutheran, 4-1, .512; lost to Linfield; beat Cal Lutheran; plays Willamette Week 11; .465
10. Baldwin-Wallace, 6-1, .500; lost to Ohio Northern; plays Mount Union Week 10; .524
11. Central, 7-1, .499; lost to Coe; plays Wartburg Week 10; .517
12. Randolph-Macon, 7-1, .451; lost to Wash. & Lee; plays Hampden-Sydney Week 11; .500
13. Cortland State, 6-1, .440; Lost to Rowan; plays Montclair State Week 9; .508

Further the Pool C discussion on Post Patterns.

For the love of the game
Others notice when you display your Division III pride. And because we want you to be able to walk around wearing your Division III pride, ATN is very close to debuting its first originally-designed, just-for-us, T-shirt of the week. Keep an eye on this space for the design and ordering info.

ATN wants the fans to be engaged; 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.

Going Stagg?
It’s almost that time of year to begin planning for the Stagg Bowl, held this year in Salem on Dec. 18. ATN again wants to push a couple of ideas to enhance the day; a potential unofficial D-III alumni flag game, and a showdown between the best tailgates in D-III. ATN will write more about both later, but send interest in either idea to keith.mcmillan@d3sports.com.

Division III players on Twitter
Whether or not you want your coach to know you tweet, D3football.com would like to follow all players and team personnel. Direct message your handle to @D3Keith, or send to keith.mcmillan@D3sports.com, so we can keep a running list of active players on Twitter; indicate whether you’d like the public to know you tweet, or just us. We’ll keep separate lists.

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 e-mail 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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