|One last time, fireworks punctuated the end of the Stagg Bowl at Salem Stadium.
Photo by Larry Radloff, d3photography.com
By Adam Turer
When looking back on the 2017 Division III football season, there’s one feeling I just can’t shake.
This was a bittersweet year.
Wooster posted its first winning season since 2013 while quarterback Gary Muntean re-wrote the Scots’ record book. The Scots accomplished all of this is in the wake of the death of starting offensive lineman Clayton Geib following the Week 3 win vs. Ohio Wesleyan. Geib was posthumously awarded first-team All-NCAC honors. The bittersweet season ended on a positive note, as Patrick Mohorcic represented Wooster and all of Division III on ESPN as the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team captain.
Muhlenberg began the season inspired by head coach Mike Donnelly’s battle with leukemia which kept him off of the sideline while athletic director Corey Goff steered the football team. Sadly, Donnelly passed away in the middle of the season. The Mules banded together to finish 8-3, with the three losses by a combined 13 points.
Albright’s 5-0 start was quickly overshadowed by a national anthem protest, dismissal of players involved, and the ensuing public relations debacle. The Lions finished the season 8-3 and in second place in the MAC.
At least these teams got to finish their seasons. Occidental cancelled two of its first five games due to low roster numbers and health and safety concerns. While the healthy, available players tried to rally under new head coach Rob Cushman, the administration pulled the plug on the season after Week 6. The Tigers played just three games this season and were outscored 170-19. The program intends to rebuild for 2018, but the graduating seniors will never get their final college football season back.
To counterbalance this undeniable pain, the 2017 season also gave us stories of unprecedented success. Brockport, Frostburg State, Berry, George Fox, and Husson each set program records for victories in a season. Those senior classes elevated their programs to new heights and raised the bar for every Golden Eagle, Bobcat, Viking, Bruin, and Eagle that will follow.
“Nineteen seniors signed up to play here four years ago when our staff hadn’t accomplished anything and our program hadn’t had a winning season since 2005. Those 19 young men that are still here with us, my loyalty and love will always be very strong with them,” said Bobcats coach DeLane Fitzgerald. “Our coaching staff is always going to be here for them and be loyal to them. They changed our football program. More importantly here, they’ve changed our university and changed our town. Their freshman year, you could literally count the people in the stands, now we have between four and six thousand on a regular basis. They are the ones that spearheaded the entire change here.”
You could see the same heightened energy in Brockport during the Golden Eagles’ historic run. Berry is on a different track, winning 11 games in just the program’s fifth year of existence. The Vikings are on a trajectory reminiscent of another purple program that reached the Stagg Bowl in just its seventh season, and made its third trip to the title game this year.
Dean and Brevard each won four games in their inaugural D-III seasons. Western New England became the first champion of the Commonwealth Coast Conference, while Springfield earned the first NEWMAC title.
The Tommies and Johnnies shattered the previous attendance record for a Division III football game. The two eventual playoff participants and MIAC rivals also put on a great show for the 37,355 fans in attendance at Target Field. St. Thomas played Gold Glove-caliber defense on the Minnesota Twins' home field in a 20-17 win, holding St. John's to just 151 yards of offense. This was a game all of D-III nation was looking forward to before the season, and it delivered in a big way.
Proof that if you put in the work and have the talent, the next level will discover you: Nicholas Morrow is starting for the Oakland Raiders as a rookie. Morrow, from Huntsville, Alabama, played four years at Greenville. The Panthers won just five games his final two seasons, playing in what is typically ranked as the lowest conference in D-III. He earned a free agent offer following the NFL draft and seized his opportunity. For all of you seniors who aren’t ready to hang up your cleats just yet, let Morrow’s story serve as some additional inspiration.
The D-III effect was felt in Division I where Mount Union alums Jason Candle (Toledo) and Matt Campbell (Iowa State) led their programs to great seasons. Lance Leipold also had his best season since leaving UW-Whitewater, leading Buffalo to a 6-6 record and bowl eligibility. Who will be the next D-III coach to make the leap?
We had the first Division III winner of the Piesman Trophy. Congratulations to Heidelberg’s Brock Riggs, who won the award and enjoyed a whirlwind weekend in New York City.
The playoffs will never give us a perfect bracket — St. John’s and Hardin-Simmons were most directly affected by undeserved first-round matchups against fellow Top 10 opponents — but this year’s did give us some great games.
Wartburg survived a two-point conversion attempt by Franklin to eke out an overtime win in the first round, then advanced to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2014.
Brockport became the first East Region team to make it to the national semifinals since 2006, thanks to Brett Renzi’s field goal as time expired in the 31-28 victory over Delaware Valley.
Then there was the game that will be talked about for years, Mount Union’s epic comeback on the road at UW-Oshkosh. After sitting out the quarterfinal win over Frostburg State and trailing 35-10 thanks in part to throwing a pick six on just his third interception of the season, D’Angelo Fulford engineered a comeback for the ages. The sophomore led the Purple Raiders all the way back for a 43-40 win and a return to the Stagg Bowl after the program fell short of its usual Salem reservation in 2016.
Seeing the Purple Raiders celebrate in Salem was a familiar conclusion to the season. It was Mount Union’s 13th national championship. Every Walnut and Bronze trophy filling the cases in Alliance was hoisted at Salem Stadium.
It was fitting that the game was played between Mary Hardin-Baylor and Mount Union. The Cru were always in the conversation, but they are now a bona fide Purple Power. After graduating their best player on both sides of the ball following 2016’s national championship, the Cru proved in returning to Salem that they are now Mount Union’s most potent challenger.
The final Stagg Bowl in Salem may very well have been a preview of Stagg Bowls to come. At this point, we can officially declare this matchup a rivalry. Coincidentally, the next four Stagg Bowls will give one of these teams an opportunity to play for a title with home field advantage.
The next two Stagg Bowls will be in eastern Texas, followed by two in northeast Ohio. For the second straight season, these teams learned that they must go through one another in order to hoist the Walnut and Bronze.
The 25th and final Stagg Bowl in southwestern Virginia turned out to be a great game between two great programs. It was also the lowest scoring Stagg Bowl ever. For fans of offense, especially fans of Mount Union’s top-ranked scoring offense, the game itself may have been bittersweet.
For me, the final Stagg Bowl in Salem cast a bittersweet pall over the entire season. It is a trip that I look forward to each year for both professional and personal reasons. I know I’m not alone in that.
“I’d just like to once again thank the city of Salem, the city of Roanoke, Carey Harveycutter, and all the great people down here that over the past 25 years that have made this such a special event for not just Mount Union, but all the teams, parents, and families and everybody that’s had an opportunity to be here,” said Vince Kehres following his second national championship as a head coach. “It’s been a great experience for a lot of people and it’s because of the great people that are down here.”
The year may have been bittersweet, but I saw firsthand at the Hotel Roanoke in the wee hours of Saturday morning that for the Purple Raiders coaches and players, especially the seniors, a perfect 15-0 season culminating in another national championship was nothing but sweet.
What did we know? Did we know things? Let’s find out!
Every year in Kickoff, our panel makes predictions for the upcoming season. Pat Coleman, Keith McMillan, Ryan Tipps, Josh Smith, Frank Rossi, Greg Thomas, and I each made our best educated guesses on how the 2017 season would play out. Now, I get to look back on our prognostications and let the rest of the D-III world know how much (or little) we knew back in August.
Which will be the last team chosen in Pool C, and what will their record be?
Frank and Josh both correctly predicted that Frostburg State would earn a berth after being snubbed at 9-1 in 2016. However, only Josh correctly predicted that the Bobcats would get in with a 9-1 record.
Which team will be the most surprising playoff entry?
This becomes a judgment call. Frank predicted Hardin-Simmons, but the Cowboys made the playoffs in 2015 and 2016 and were ranked No. 12 in the preseason Top 25. Pat said there would be no surprises. I’d say the biggest surprise was Illinois Wesleyan finishing 9-1 and earning a clear Pool C berth. The Titans were predicted to finish in third place in the CCIW with three losses. We’ll give Pat a point here.
Does UW-Oshkosh or Mary Hardin-Baylor return to the Stagg Bowl?
Points for Ryan and Frank, for answering in the affirmative.
Will UW-Whitewater or Mount Union play in the Stagg Bowl?
Everybody correctly said yes to this one.
Who will reach the national semifinals?
Nobody predicted more than half of the final four correctly. Points to Adam (Mount Union and UW-Oshkosh), Ryan, Frank, and Pat (Mount Union and Mary Hardin-Baylor). St. Thomas, UW-Whitewater, and Wheaton were popular picks, and Linfield, Hobart, and Wesley each received one guess.
Who will win the national title?
Adam, Josh, and Pat each predicted a Purple Raiders win in Salem. UW-Whitewater and St. Thomas split the other four nods.
Which 2016 playoff team will have the worst fall-off, record-wise?
A lot of good picks here. Alfred won four fewer games than it did in 2016, Washington U. five, and John Carroll six. But Coe went from 11-1 to 4-6, a difference of seven wins. Points for Ryan.
Which team will have the best improvement over its 2016 record?
The picks here weren’t as strong. Both Baldwin Wallace and Ripon improved by three wins, but the clear runaway was Springfield, which improved from 5-5 to 10-1. Good call, Greg.
Who will be the D3football.com offensive & defensive players of the year?
Five people picked St. Thomas running back Jordan Roberts, but unfortunately his career ended with another season-ending injury. Nobody predicted UW-Oshkosh Brett Kasper, who also won the Gagliardi Trophy. On defense, the picks varied but we all predicted eventual All-Americans. Only Pat nailed Berry defensive lineman Mamadou Soumahoro as the DPOY.
Which Mount Union quarterback will throw for the most yards?
Another win for Pat, the only panelist to predict that D’Angelo Fulford would win the quarterback competition in Alliance. I thought it would be Luke Poorman, who showed that he’s plenty capable by leading the Purple Raiders to 70 points in his start in the quarterfinals. Everyone else though Dom Davis, who finished 2016 as the starter, would be the man in 2017.
Which star wide receiver will fare the best with a new quarterback?
Jesse Zubik caught 84 passes for 1,408 yards and 17 touchdowns. I don’t think the Washington & Jefferson wide receiver was affected by pair of new starters throwing his way this season. Points for Keith and Pat.
Who will win the Empire 8?
Ryan thought Alfred would repeat. A few people picked St. John Fisher, possibly the season’s biggest disappointments at 2-8. Adam, Keith, and Pat correctly predicted Brockport.
Which team will win the first NEWMAC title?
Greg, Adam, Ryan, and Pat all tabbed Springfield.
Will any NESCAC team win nine games?
Trinity was the only team to win eight, finishing at 8-1. Points for Greg, Adam, Ryan, and Josh. Pat and Frank both expected Trinity to win, but thought the Bantams would run the table. Keith incorrectly thought two teams would win eight games, but technically his answer earns a point.
Which team that went winless in 2016 will win the most games in 2017?
Whittier remained winless. Sewanee and Wilmington each won multiple games. But points to Pat for his prediction of Martin Luther, which went from 0-10 to 5-5. It was the most wins in a season for the Knights since 2010.
Which team with a new coach will have the biggest gain in the win column?
Jim Hilvert was a popular pick and he led Baldwin Wallace to a three-win improvement. But points to Josh for his pick of Texas Lutheran, which improved to 6-4 in Carl Gustafson’s first season as head coach, following a 2-8 campaign.
What will be the most surprising upset of the season?
Some were close, like Pat’s pick of George Fox knocking off Linfield and Josh’s prediction of Muhlenberg upsetting Johns Hopkins. But I predicted that Wilmington would win an OAC game for just the second time this decade. The Quakers got it done against Capital on Sept. 23. Point for Adam.
And lastly, will you give us a one-sentence prediction we're unlikely to see anywhere else?
Bonus to points to Ryan and Greg. Ryan correctly predicted that Johns Hopkins would fall short of sweeping the Centennial Conference for the first time in five seasons, while Greg tooted his own horn but then delivered, going 7 for 7 with at-large picks on Mock Selection Saturday.
With 10 points, it’s as if Pat Coleman knows his stuff when it comes to D-III football. This is Pat’s first win since 2014.
D3football never sleeps
And neither do we. While coaches hit the road to recruit, and players get back in the weight room, we will continue to bring you content throughout the offseason. Pat and Keith’s Around the Nation podcast will go monthly in the offseason, but with more guests. We’ll continue to keep you apprised of coaching changes as the carousel turns. We’ll keep an eye on the NFL draft and free agency, as this is shaping up to be a promising year for Division III prospects. And you might even see a feature or two about Division III football’s impact at other levels of the game.
If you don’t get what you want for Christmas, or need a place to spend some Christmas cash, wear your D-III pride with the new D3football collection.
We will spend the next few months getting ready for the 2018 season. Feel free to chime in with your predictions or let us know what you’d like to see differently on this site next season. We are always welcome to your feedback. It’s the great players, coaches, administrators, and fans who make this site work.
Finally, a big thank you to every coach and player who took time out of their busy schedules this season to be interviewed for the numerous columns, stories, and podcasts that we delivered this year. A huge thank you to all of the Sports Information Directors who helped set them up, too. We love shining a light on the players and coaches in Division III who truly do it for the love of the game.
What other memorable moments stood out to you in 2017? Tweet me at @adamturer and I’ll share your memories with the rest of #d3fb nation. Thanks for reading and see you in 2018!