By Matt Florjancic
Trine is no longer the new kid on the block in the Division III playoffs.
Last season, the Thunder went 10-0 in the regular season and won the school’s first-ever Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association football championship. They also made their first trip to the postseason. However, when the regular season records were discarded and the postseason began, Trine lost its first game, 14-0 to Wheaton (Ill.), which entered the playoffs at 8-2.
This time around, the 40 returning lettermen and 14 returning starters have the Thunder hungry to make some noise in the postseason.
“They feel more comfortable,” said third-year Trine coach Matt Land. “That first time in the playoffs is tough. We played an incredibly good Wheaton team that obviously proved to be very, very good and went to the (national semifinals). Our kids played well. I don’t think the way they played last year had to do with the playoffs.
“It’s just preparation during the week,” he added. “It’s new and this year, we have that experience. Getting to the playoffs isn’t good enough anymore. We’ve done that. We’ve got to win our conference some playoff games so we can start getting some respect, which I think our conference deserves around the country. Until we earn that right and earn that respect, it’s not going to happen for us. We feel we’re carrying the mantle for the entire MIAA.”
Earning the respect and attention of the nation will not be an easy task.
MIAA participants in the NCAA Tournament have lost their past 11 games. The last win came when Albion defeated Washington and Jefferson 38-15 in front of 7,168 fans in the 1994 Stagg Bowl. Albion is the only MIAA school to win an NCAA postseason game.
“There was a lot of ‘We’re not sure how to do this kind of a thing,’” Land said. “Now, I see it in our guys’ eyes. They’re confident; they’re comfortable and they can’t wait to get on the practice field.”
Winning this weekend will take a strong effort in all three phases of the game. Trine travels to Cleveland for a battle with Case Western Reserve and senior quarterback Dan Whalen.
Whalen has led the Spartans to three-straight University Athletic Association championships and 10-0 seasons. Whalen has thrown for 9,390 yards during his career, including 3,010 yards this season alone. He has a quarterback rating of 178.6, a 69.6 completion percentage (218-of-313) and has tossed 31 touchdowns during his final season.
“Their quarterback is probably the best quarterback in the nation,” said Land. “He’s very athletic and he’s tough. He can run and is very, very accurate when he’s throwing the ball in the pocket or running. He’s a good football player. We have a lot of respect for him.”
The Thunder have intercepted 11 passes, four of which belonging to junior defensive back Aaron Selking. They have registered 18 sacks in 10 regular season games. Junior defensive lineman Matt Medina, a high school teammate of Selking, has 7.5 tackles for loss, including five sacks for 21 lost yards. Chris Eichman has just two sacks, but seven quarterback hits and five pass breakups.
“You have to be able to get pressure on the quarterback and that’s where Medina, Chris Eichman and our defensive line come in,” said Land. “The more people you can drop, the better off we’re going to be. We’re going to go forward and do what we do.”
While the Thunder defense focuses in on neutralizing Whalen, the offense, led by MIAA Offensive Player of the Year Eric Watt, will need to take care of the ball and score points.
“They have an All-American linebacker and an All-American corner,” Land said. “That’s pretty good company to be playing against. They’re a very smart football team, a very disciplined football team. They have a very physical defense, so it’s going to be a great challenge.”
For the first time in three years, the Monon Bell will reside in Crawfordsville. With its 32-19 come-from-behind victory over DePauw, the Wabash Little Giants earned themselves an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. Quarterback Matt Hudson completed 19 of 30 passes for 325 yards and three touchdowns without throwing an interception last Saturday afternoon.
Hudson hit Wes Chamblee with seven passes for 97 yards while Jonathan Horn caught the go-ahead touchdown from 51 yards away.
The Mount Union Purple Raiders claimed the only playoff berth for the Ohio Athletic Conference this season. Even without the likes of running back Nate Kmic and the 2008 Division III Player of the Year Greg Micheli, Mount Union’s offense continued to rack up impressive numbers.
The Purple Raiders gained 506.9 yards and scored 45.5 points-per-game. Senior quarterback Kurt Rocco completed 155 of 223 passes with 31 touchdowns against six interceptions. Cecil Shorts III, who was an early quarterback candidate once Micheli completed his eligibility, caught 68 passes for 1,261 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Linebacker Brad Steinmetz, a senior for Thomas More, earned the 2009 Presidents’ Athletic Conference Player of the Year award.
Steinmetz was among the league leaders with 89 tackles, including 13 for 47 lost yards. Steinmetz also had five sacks and one interception, which he returned 40 yards for a touchdown in a 40-12 win over Bethany on Oct. 3.
Thirty-one straight regular season victories is not an easy mark to reach, but with its 28-8 home win over Washington U., Case Western Reserve accomplished the feat. Case’s senior class is the only group of Spartans to have experienced a regular season loss.
Mount Union (10-0, OAC):
The Purple Raiders host Washington and Jefferson (9-1, PAC).
Thomas More (10-0, PAC): The Saints host DePauw (7-2, SCAC).
Wabash (9-1, NCAC): The Little Giants travel to Illinois Wesleyan (9-1, CCIW).
Case Western Reserve (10-0, UAA): The Spartans host Trine (9-1, MIAA).
Wittenberg (10-0, NCAC): The Tigers host Mount St. Joseph (9-1, Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference).
Washington and Jefferson (9-1) at Mount Union (10-0), Nov. 21, noon:
Courtesy of an at-large bid, Washington and Jefferson coach Mike Sirianni gets to answer a long-asked question: What could he do coaching against his alma mater?
Sirianni, who was a receivers coach for the Purple Raiders after graduating from Mount Union, leads a potent passing attack against a secondary that has registered 16 interceptions this season.
Wabash (9-1) at Illinois Wesleyan (9-1), Nov. 21, noon: With a win over their archrival DePauw, the Wabash Little Giants roll into the postseason on a positive note for the first time in three seasons. However, a trip to Illinois Wesleyan was the reward.
The key for Wabash will be taking care of the football. The Titans defense has 14 interceptions on the season and has recovered eight opponent fumbles. Illinois Wesleyan is plus-10 in the turnover margin.