December 16, 2011

ATN's Year in Review

Tyler Burke and Wabash generated one of the best comebacks in Division III this season, and on a big stage.
Wabash photo by Howard Hewitt

The 2011 season ends with Friday’s matchup of UW-Whitewater and Mount Union, but the Stagg Bowl is not the end-all.

Two-hundred and thirty-nine teams strapped it up this season, and while we’ll always remember and respect the champion that emerges from the seventh meeting of the purple powers in Salem, the season provided a lot more worth remembering than a single champion.

This look back at the 2011 season isn’t comprehensive – it’d be quite the undertaking to highlight all the standout occurrences in 239 programs. We’ve also, through All-Region and All-American teams, coach of the year awards, and the playoffs themselves, already acknowledged the top players, best leaders and most successful squads this season. (All-Americans are announced in our Stagg Bowl pregame show.)

Beyond that, these are just a handful of things that happened between Weeks 1 and 14 that Around the Nation would like to acknowledge one last time:

Steps forward

• The moment the playoff brackets were revealed on Nov. 13 was perhaps the most exciting thing that happened this season away from a stadium on game day. Fans and the D3football.com staff had figured the committee out – we knew who was in and why, who the top seeds would be and where they would play. Or so we thought.

The selection committee bypassed two 9-1 teams in favor of an 8-2 team with a high strength of schedule figure, and mixed up the brackets from their usual geographic focus to more of a pod system, keeping in mind the focus on trips of less than 500 miles in the first round. The NCAA picked up the tab on more flights than it had to this season, and it paid off with some of the best games of the playoffs: Cal Lutheran at Linfield in the first round, when the Wildcats blocked a kick to preserve a 30-27 win, and Linfield at Wesley in the second round, where two powerhouse programs from opposite coasts that might only have been able to meet in Salem, played a second-round shootout for the ages. In the quarterfinals, Salisbury and St. John Fisher flew out West to take on UW-Whitewater and St. Thomas instead of having to play each other, and we got another epic matchup between Mary-Hardin Baylor and Wesley.

Ultimately, if we’re fans of unique matchups – and those who are clamoring for new teams in Salem certainly are – then we want to see the NCAA selection committee continue to spend the money to mix up the field and let the true champions emerge by playing the best teams the rest of the country has to offer.

• With twenty dozen teams in D-III, there are always those who make their move, winning more games than in the previous season, and those who fall back. In 2011, though, the movers were led by teams whose dismal recent histories made their achievements this season even more noteworthy.

Lewis and Clark started the season 7-0 and had a chance to clinch the NWC title in Week 11, rewarding the faith the school put in the program itself after an abbreviated four-game season in 2004, and the coach they hired afterward, Chris Sulages. It took time to build, and lots of small steps forward, but the Pioneers took a giant one in 2011.

St. Vincent finished the season 6-5 after a loss in an ECAC bowl game, but it's still a great season by the young Bearcats' program's standards.
St. Vincent athletics photo

Likewise, Heidelberg’s 8-2 season might have gone unnoticed because Baldwin-Wallace and Ohio Northern were the OAC teams that gave might Mount Union its stiffest tests. But for a program that was 0-10 as recently as 2006, it’s not only a step forward, it’s a complete 180 in reputation. In 2011, Heidelberg proved its turnaround was for real, and teams still single out that game on the schedule. But now instead of expecting an easy win, they expect a stiff challenge.

St. Vincent’s progress had been slow since reviving the program five seasons ago, but finally they turned the corner. The six wins were two more than the Bearcats had earned in the first four seasons combined, but the real sign of progress was beating PAC power Washington & Jefferson and losing, 20-17, to conference champion Thomas More, a game those within the program feel they should have. The 5-3 PAC record was nice, but the fact that all five of their overall losses were one-score games (none by more than eight points) puts St. Vincent in the spotlight going forward.

Dubuque seemingly turned the corner once before, but this season, with the first conference championship in thirty years and a playoff appearance, was special. Wide receiver Michael Zweifel was the lone D-III player up for the Campbell Trophy and won the Gagliardi Trophy, but it appears the cupboard is far from bare for Stan Zweifel’s team going forward.

• McMurry also was a perennially struggling program that made its first playoff appearance this season. Hal Mumme’s Air Raid offense was only part of the story, as the War Hawks (they finally have a new mascot) garnered attention for quarterback Jake Mullin’s circuitous route to D-III, the team bouncing back from an 82-6 loss against scholarship-level Stephen F. Austin to beat scholarship-level UT-San Antonio, and for their furious comeback at Mary Hardin-Baylor after a lightning delay. With all that going on, it’s a shame that a program which seems to be a perfect fit in the ASC and looked slated to be a playoff contender for years to come is leaving for D-II.

• ESPN3’s broadcast of the semifinal games between Wesley and Mount Union and St. Thomas and UW-Whitewater not only gave the gift of TV exposure to two extra schools this season. It satisfied a long-held craving of D-III to be able to see both games, by staggering the start times to noon and 3:30. By adding semifinal broadcasts, the option to pick the games up locally was taken advantage of by TV stations near all four colleges, plus folks could watch online, some via smartphones, and others could order it for their big-screen TVs and DVR it. The broadcasters in the booth struggled with some names and focused the camera on a Wesley guy with a Knapp shirt on, not offensive coordinator Chip Knapp, who was referred to as Chris. But for the most part the broadcasts knew the D-III teams they covered well, and respected the game. For that we can only say, ‘more please?’

• D3football.com tries to add something each year to increase the fan enjoyment of the game, and the debut of the D3reports means we owe a debt of gratitude to the fans who put themselves out there, via the cameras on smartphones, to give us a taste of what game day is like at schools across the country. With sometimes 120 games taking place on a given Saturday, no one can be everywhere to see everything. But with the help of D3reports, we can get a peek. Now let’s see someone report live from a tailgate!

Hat tips

It’s difficult, for those who don’t follow D-III football regularly, to really get a feel for it. But when outsiders put in the effort, it really comes through in their work. So a hat tip goes to Grantland’s Chuck Klosterman, who traveled to Maine Maritime and Amherst to study and contrast their offenses – the Mariners run a highly successful triple option and almost never pass; the Lord Jeffs aim to get a play off in 14 seconds.

Tim Layden’s Sports Illustrated story on Williams’s unofficially retired No. 50 jersey was tremendous as well. The Ephs lost track of why they stopped issuiung the number, but they held on to the tradition. Layden unraveled it in long form.

• Director Marshall Cook sat down with our Pat Coleman to talk about his movie, Division III: Football’s Finest. In the Skype interview, Cook mentions that he’s a former Occidental quarterback, that he visited D-III colleges, including Alma, to promote the movie, and that he edited it himself on a Mac, working with a shoestring budget. A movie, starring Andy Dick, that could have been an attempt to lampoon D-III as a bumbling, no-talent level of football suddenly came off as something created in the D-III spirit. That it’s made by one of us, with more heart and substance than big budget or glitz, makes it easier to laugh along with. Support it via OnDemand or by ordering the DVD.

• There are more acknowledgements than would be practical to list, from every small-town newspaper that dutifully assigns a beat reporter to the local D-III team, to the TV stations and networks that pick up interest from time to time, like during the Wabash-DePauw rivalry game. The SIDs, coaches and support staff alongside every program who takes time to point out stories, nominate players for postseason awards and cut video highlights for play of the week – you guys are stars as well. That sounds cliché, but for those who played before there was a national website, or live stats, or instant video capabilities, today’s players, coaches and fans might not even appreciate the opportunity they have to be interconnected. It’s light years beyond my standard story – going down to the hotel lobby on the morning of a game against Franklin & Marshall to find the four-inch blurb written about us.

• Likewise, there are more Herculean efforts in D-III than would be possible to list. So many players give it their all in limited roles, most for limited rewards. But even among the elite – and D-III players who are serious student-athletes should consider themselves such – there are standouts. The 10 Gagliardi Trophy semifinalists and four finalists. The handful of players who will get NFL looks. The players who have overcome a lot in life, like Centre’s Jonathan Pinque, and have a more positive outlook than most of us ever would … well, those people are the essence of why we love the game at this level.

• You could hardly watch a game this season without a D-III alum getting a shout out, whether it was Buffalo’s Fred Jackson being among the league leaders in rushing until he got hurt, or Mount Union wide receivers Pierre Garcon and Cecil Shorts III carving niches for the Colts and Jaguars, or Andy Studebaker (Wheaton) making plays on Monday Night Football. At that doesn’t even acknowledge the brigade of older D-III players (London Fletcher, Matt Turk), coaches (Bill Belichick, Steve Spagnuolo) or front-office types and asssistant coaches (Nick Caserio, Nick Sirianni) who are working in the league. Hey, most of us might be going pro in something other than the sport we play, but we all feel a tie (such as the tweet to San Diego Charger Quentin Jammer, from an OAC player who’d also been beaten for a touchdown by Shorts in his career) to those we played alongside or against.

• Hat tip to the fans, as always. To follow D-III, the expenses can be exorbitant because of what you bring to the tailgate, cough up to travel or kick in each semester for your son’s tuition. But there are rewards. How else to explain two fans we learned about this season: Lycoming’s Dave Roberts, who hadn’t missed a game in 30 years (featured by Andrew Lovell in Around the East), and Randolph-Macon’s Jake Barger, who’s attended (or played in) the past 53 rivalry games with Hampden-Sydney. That kind of devotion is impressive.

• Hat tip to the people of Salem and staff, for the events put on over championship weekend. There are many organizations which see the open niche in D-III and attempt, with varying degrees of success, to pull off first-class events. The work done for the D3 Senior Classic, Gagliardi Trophy presentation and Stagg Bowl continues to set a standard that is noticed when new people come into town for the first time. They mention it to us unprompted, that they feel welcome and treated with respect. Whatever is imperfect can be smoothed over by the feeling that the city respects and values its role in D-III athletics.

• Hat tip to St. John Fisher, whose two playoff wins are a reminder that playing strong teams in the regular season, even if you lose to two of them, doesn’t preclude a team from beating strong teams in the playoffs. The limitations of the field left No. 18 Wheaton, No. 21 Bethel, No. 23 Baldwin-Wallace and No. 24 Montclair State, all 8-2 teams from automatic-bid conferences, and 9-1 Endicott and Case Western Reserve on the outside looking in. The Cardinals rode for the two-loss teams from power conferences, while Illinois College, the 9-1 team from a less-respected conference that took an at-large bid, was bounced in the first round.

Moments to cherish

To each, his or her own.

I won’t even try to guess the special things that happened for you this season because you participated in D-III football in some way. Those moments are sometimes small in the grand scheme, and have no effect on who won or lost. They can be the people you meet that warm your heart or the plays that that wow your eyes. Take a moment and think of your own moments. Then I’ll share a few of mine.

Perhaps nothing will encapsulate this season for me more than this: Frank Rossi and I are broadcasting a second-round playoff game at Wesley, in which the Wolverines’ 42 points in the second half erased Linfield’s 27-7 halftime lead. As that is taking place, Kean is a short ride down Route 13 (ahem*staggered starts*ahem) playing a triple-overtime game against Salisbury, one decided by a two-point conversion that might or might not have crossed the goal line depending who you ask. And although the Sea Gulls won, 49-47, it wasn’t even the craziest finish going on at that time.

North Central was anointed a team that could win the national championship by several people. Wheaton’s Mike Swider, a coach who has seen both the Cardinals and Mount Union up close often, said it. Dubuque’s Stan Zweifel said it after his team got brushed out of the playoffs, 59-13 in Round 1. And I wrote it, both in identifying NCC (as well as Linfeld, Wesley, UMHB and UST) as one of five teams that could unseat the purple powers in our Kickoff ’11 preview edition, and again in the ATN surprises and disappointments column.

Wabash, at the same time as Wesley-Linfield and Salisbury-Kean, was rallying behind second-string quarterback Tyler Burke from down 28-7 to win 29-28. The shocker was that after their touchdown with 51 seconds left, on their home field, the Little Giants went for two. The video, which became play of the week, shows the first option on the route, Wes Chamblee, getting chucked to the ground. Burke throws, but a North Central defensive back comes over the top to break up the pass. But the tip goes over both of their heads, and to a waiting receiver, whose feet are just inside the sideline in the end zone. Conversion good, trajectory of a season changed.

Those three finishes happening simultaneously stand as the high point in a season that featured its fair share of excitement both before and after Round 2.

• Wesley rallying around a non-player, Ben Knapp, the 16-year-old coordinator’s son who survived cardiac arrest, stands out. But so does the Wolverines’ transformation from a team sometimes criticized for its inability to crash through to Salem, or its penchant for penalties, to a team that gave thoughtful and humble quotes to reporters and played inspired football. Wesley, after games against its most fierce opponents, gathered the opposition at midfield and prayed after games. That’s not unique to them of course. And neither is a team growing up over the course of a season or handling themselves like men. But for me, because Wesley is one of the few D-III teams comprised mostly of black players, it gives me an extra measure of pride to see them stand tall.

ATN almost never discusses race, a tribute to the way D-III never makes it necessary. Doors are open to players from diverse walks of life, with football and college being the common denominators. You don’t have to go back too far in the history of many D-III colleges to find a time when the educational opportunities were available only to a small sliver of the population, based on race, gender, social class and more. As 2011 is a stitch in time, one in which the racial makeup of the championship teams or the panel of Gagliardi Trophy finalists goes undiscussed, it is an extra point for which D-III can pat itself on the back. In this day and age, we are successfully judging one another on our merits.

• I enjoy being able to stop and talk with fans, coaches and players at every stop along the way. My only regret is not being able to do it more often and more thoroughly. But as moments go, spending the night following the Gagliardi Trophy ceremony picking the brains of St. Thomas wide receiver Fritz Waldvogel and Dubuque counterpart Michael Zweifel, both of whom were more than happy to be candid about things only us D-III geeks could care about (like how the level of play in the IIAC compares to the WIAC, or what the recruiting process in Minnesota is like), ranks right up there. Asking the people who live the game helps us solidify or reshape the opinions we already have, and opens us up to new ones. So to everyone we stop to chat with along the way, thank you. You are a part of the overall picture we paint for our readers, listeners and viewers.

• Fully embracing Twitter seems to be the way for D-III to go. We’re moving towards a time when we can really follow each other’s teams despite having our own games to be involved in on Saturdays. But it’s also great that the barriers – distance, unfamiliarity, perception of fame – have come down between us. We have to be careful not to use that to hurt each other, but to open doors. Before Twitter, @smedindy and I enjoying the Friday-night exploits of the #cardiaccardinals – Catholic had a penchant for comebacks early in its 5-5 season – was an impossibility. Talking directly to the players who are newsmakers was possible, but quite different. And folks farther off the beaten path can chime right into the discussion, sharing thoughts that hold just as much validity. It’s an interesting time to be in D-III. Pause a second and ponder the magnitude of how far we’ve come.

Numbers

371 – Rushing yards UW-Whitewater’s Levell Coppage needed heading into the Stagg Bowl to pass Mount Union’s Nate Kmic for NCAA all-time leading rusher. As UW-Whitewater and Mount Union continue to play 15 games a season, something no other division or team in our division is doing, their players will rewrite the record books.

417 – More carries, prior to the Stagg Bowl, that Coppage had in his career in 56 games than the next-leading player, Mount Ida’s Johrone Bunch. Bunch played 37 games, carried 875 times at 5.36 per carry for 4,688 yards and 49 TDs. Coppage’s line: 56, 1,292, 5.96, 7,704 and 108.

22 – Times since their first Stagg Bowl season, in 2005, UW-Whitewater games have been in doubt in the fourth quarter. That might or might not sound like a lot, but it certainly is proof that the purple powers are beatable by teams who can close. Five of the 22 games ended in losses – three to Mount Union in the Stagg Bowl, one to UW-Stevens Point and one to D-II St. Cloud State.

90 – Years between postseason appearances for Centre, which played Texas A&M in the 1922 Dixie Classic, then beat Hampden-Sydney in the first round this year, 51-41.

Alex Tanney
Alex Tanney came just short of the Gagliardi Trophy but will have an All-American nod and a shot at a pro football career.
Monmouth athletics photo

5 – Names I’ve heard connected to potential pro careers so far: Monmouth quarterback Alex Tanney, North Central tight end Kyle Fiedorwicz, Hampden-Sydney wide receiver Kyle Vance, Shenandoah wide receiver Rico Wallace, Wittenberg wide receiver Josh McKee.

41 – Points scored by Hamline in its 0-10 season. The Pipers were shut out seven times. For comparison, Knox went 0-10 and scored 215 points. Puget Sound went 0-9 and scored 215.

86 – Points scored by North Central against Olivet Sept. 17, the highest in a game this season. The Cardinals scored 156 in a two-week stretch following a season-opening loss to Redlands, beating Bethel (Tenn.), 70-26, and Olivet, 86-14.

55 – Both the longest field goal of the season in D-III, by Endicott’s Dylan Rushe, and the number of points it gave his team in a 48-point win against Curry.

4 – ODAC quarterbacks ranked among the nation’s passing leaders. Hampden-Sydney’s Travis Lane and Catholic’s Greg Cordivari were tops in several categories, alongside names like Jake Mullin (McMurry), Hewett Tomlin (Johns Hopkins) and Wyatt Hanus (Dubuque). Emory & Henry sophomore Kyle Boden ranked sixth overall in passing and Randolph-Macon freshman Zac Naccarato was ninth in passing efficiency. Great quarterbacks or bad defensive backs in that conference? (The MWC, with Monmouth’s Alex Tanney, Lake Forest’s Pete Scaffidi and Illinois College’s Michael Bates in the top 13, each over 284 yards a game, wasn’t far behind.)

0 – Wins for Pomona-Pitzer, which featured the nation’s leading rusher in yards per game (177.38) in Luke Sweeney.

Minus-2 – Albion’s net points for the season, despite being a playoff team. Their 59-0 first-round loss to UW-Whitewater ate up their cushion and left them with a 6-5 record.

26-56 – The cumulative record of SUNY-Maritime’s opponents, the worst in the nation. (.317)

26 – The number of tackles (15 solo, 11 assists) credited to Greensboro linebacker Allen Stallings in an Oct. 29 game against Christopher Newport, and to Knox LB Mike Hendrick Sept. 24 (12, 14) against Beloit.

17-1 The split of solo tackles and assists for Anna Maria freshman linebacker Kevin Card against SUNY-Maritime on Oct. 15.

37-3 The split of touchdown passes to interceptions for St. Scholastica’s Alex Thiry.

7,997 – Average attendance for Hampden-Sydney, which unseated annual national leader St. John’s (7,699). More impressive is that the game the Tigers can count on for the largest crowd was away, at rival Randolph-Macon.

264 – Fans per game for MacMurray, the lowest average attendance of 234 teams reporting.

5 – Games drawing upwards of 10,000 fans this season: Augsburg at St. John’s, Washington & Lee at H-SC, UW-Platteville at UW-Whitewater, SJU at St. Thomas and UW-Stevens Point at UW-W.

10 – The number of teams that drew upwards of 4,000 fans a game. Ranked third through 10th: Randolph-Macon, UW-Whitewater, Concordia-Moorhead, Emory & Henry, Christopher Newport, Wartburg, Trine and Baldwin-Wallace.

450 – Career catches, at both UW-River Falls and Dubuque, for Gagliardi Trophy winner Michael Zweifel.

3.9 – Zweifel’s grade-point average.

Matt Harris got nearly half of his sacks, seven of them, in one game against Becker.
Gallaudet athletics photo

15.5 – Sacks in 10 games for Gallaudet’s Matt Harris, the national leader and one of 11 players who averaged more than one a game.

82 – Preseason rank of Western New England, which went 10-2 and won the NEFC.

11 – Teams in the preseason D3football.com top 25 that made the 32-team playoff field, which is slightly below average. The poll, however, did have all four semifinalists ranked in the preseason top five, and had nine more playoff teams receiving votes.

2 – Wins by North Carolina Wesleyan, predicted by Touchdown Illustrated as a team to watch. TDI also included Trinity (Conn.) in its group of teams who are “very much contenders” to reach the Stagg Bowl, even though the Bantams do not participate in the playoffs. The rest of TDI’s picks were pretty solid though.

1 – Rank of Wesley’s schedule, including the playoffs. Despite not having a conference, the Wolverines managed to play Mount Union, Mary Hardin-Baylor, Linfield, Hobart, Salisbury and Kean, all of whom were in the playoffs, and Huntingdon, which was 7-3. UW-La Crosse, which played UW-Whitewater twice and traveled to Mary Hardin-Baylor, ranked sixth, highest among teams that missed the playoffs. UW-Oshkosh, which played both teams in the national championship game, ranked 13th.

5 – Teams identified in Kickoff as most likely to surpass UW-Whitewater and Mount Union. All five were in the playoffs. North Central got knocked out by Wabash. Wesley, one of the five, eliminated Linfield and Mary Hardin-Baylor, two of the others, then lost to Mount Union. St. Thomas was eliminated by UW-Whitewater. I don’t know two programs that could have been more ready to take that next step than Wesley and UST, so for the rest of D-III, it’s back to the drawing board to keep it from being eight straight.

Have more reasons to remember 2011? Tweet them to @D3Keith using hashtag #YIR, and I’ll retweet them to ATN’s readers.

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