October 9, 2012

Concordia Cougars on a roll

More news about: Concordia-Chicago
Jake Koehler drives the Concordia-Chicago offense with 320 yards of total offense per game.
Concordia-Chicago athletics photo 

The Concordia-Chicago Cougars have seen this for the past three seasons – a big conference win followed by rising expectations. Then the big crushing conference loss that would leave it bridesmaids once again at the Northern Athletics Conference altar.

But if the Cougars’ 21-9 victory over Wisconsin Lutheran means anything, it might mean Concordia is ready to make the next step to the NATHC championship and the playoffs. Concordia is one of a handful of undefeated teams left in Division III at 5-0. More importantly, the Cougars are 2-0 in the conference standings after a dramatic victory against Wisconsin Lutheran.

Concordia was clinging to the 14-9 lead, but the Warriors had driven deep inside Cougars territory and looked poised to score the go-ahead touchdown with about seven minutes left in the game. That’s when senior safety Matt Rolf stepped in front of a Wisconsin Lutheran pass full stride and raced 80 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.

Cougars coach Lonnie Pries, though, doesn’t want any talk about conference championships and playoffs. He said Concordia will have a tough enough time in its grueling slate of games against rival Concordia (Wis.) and Aurora – the only remaining undefeated conference foes – followed by its proverbial thorn in the side, defending conference champion Benedictine.

Pries credits the leadership of his eight captains – seven seniors and one junior – with not only keeping the team focus, but making sure their teammates grow and football players and men.

“We have a unique group of eight captains,” Pries said. “We meet every week and while we talk about the program, we also talk about how to impact the other guys on the team. We want to make sure they grow while they are here. I joke with them and say they are the kind of guys I would have no problem dating my daughter because they are all quality individuals. The reason we are able to compete is because of their leadership.”

Concordia’s run is pretty much unprecedented in school history. It was documented in this column last year that you would have to go back to the early 1970s to find another string of success by the Cougars.

What the Wisconsin Lutheran game signals for Concordia is a paradigm shift. Changing the attitude and perception of a program can take time. How teams react when things go wrong is a test of that attitude and perception.

Quarterback Jake Koehler had been passing for nearly 300 yards per game, but Wisconsin Lutheran’s defense made it difficult for him to find his first and second options. He finished the games 11-for-23 for 128 yards. Yet, when the chips were down against the Warriors, the Cougars found a way to win. That’s a good sign that Pries’ program-building effort is hitting the mark.

Rolf, one of eight captains on the Concordia team, was a freshman during the Cougars’ last losing season. He and the other six senior captains represent the final changing of the guards for Concordia’s fortunes.

“We knew the game could go either way but we had players who had been in that position before and felt confident that they could make a play if the chance presented itself,” Pries said. “Our earlier game against Chicago was back and forth on the scoreboard, too. Having that confidence comes with time. Matt’s a senior guy and we had a number of guys were making plays that game.”

But can Concordia weather the challenge of being the team that everyone in the NATHC is now chasing?

“One of the things we do well is not looking ahead,” Pries said. “Everybody knows Benedictine’s won the conference and has been our nemesis. Everybody knows that Concordia and Aurora have really caught everyone’s attention the first two weeks. With everyone we know on both campuses, Concordia (Wis.) is an automatic rivalry for us and they always have a strong unit defensively. Next week is going to be a huge test for us.”

Pries said having a winning program does come with its own challenges and pressures, things that his team and coaches will have to manage if Concordia expects to survive its stretch of top NATHC foes.

“As you continue to win, that expectation is only going to build,” Pries said “You can sense it on campus and on the team and that’s where our challenge lies. You start to get people from the outside start talking about the playoffs and who we think we might play. It’s critical for us to take this one game at a time. That challenge just gets bigger.”

It will be no bigger than this Saturday when the Cougars face Concordia (Wis.).

Lake Forest changes things in MWC

No one can ever accuse Lake Forest coach Jim Catanzaro of playing it safe. Faced with a fourth-and-11 at Illinois College 19 with less than two minutes to go in the game with a tied score 28-28, conventional wisdom says kick the field goal. But facing an Illinois College team that’s averaging 600 yards a game in total offense, Catanzaro went for all the marbles.

Pete Schafidi’s dramatic 16-yard pass completion to Austin Sobey gave Lake Forest a first-and-10 on the Illinois College 3. Al Mitchell (23 carries, 119 yards) scored on the next to give the Foresters a stunning 35-28 victory over the Blueboys, giving them sole possession of first place in the Midwest Conference (5-1, 5-0). The Foresters lone loss came at the hands of Concordia-Chicago 35-28 in the season opener.

It was a topsy-turvy day last week in the MWC, but some of it could be resolved – or actually become more jumbled – on Saturday when Lake Forest takes on Monmouth, which fell to Grinnell 21-7 last Saturday. A Lake Forest victory would give the Foresters at least a one-game over its closest competitors. A loss could drop Lake Forest back in a tie with Monmouth, St. Norbert and Illinois College. This conference race could get wacky before it’s said and none.

IWU, Franklin passed after big wins

Illinois Wesleyan and Franklin may be a little surprised to look at the Top 25 ranks this week to see they actually lost ground after the Titans scored a 44-7 win over North Park while the Grizzlies dismantled Mount St. Joseph 38-0.

Illinois Wesleyan, though, will have a chance to move back up in the rankings soon. The Titans will play consecutive road games against No. 20 Wheaton on Oct. 20 and against No. 10 North Central on Oct. 27.

Moving up may be a little tougher for Franklin, even if it wins out. For starters, the Grizzlies are the only team in the Top 20 with two losses, despite those two losses coming from No. 1 Mount Union and non-scholarship FCS school Butler. Franklin is facing Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference foes Anderson (0-5), Rose-Hulman (2-4) and Defiance (2-4) in consecutive weeks.

The Grizzlies likely won’t be challenged again until they take on upstart Bluffton (4-2) before closing out against rival Hanover (3-2, 3-0 in HCAC) to close out the regular season.

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