November 5, 2010

Independents have a lot on the line

More news about: Huntingdon | LaGrange
Huntingdon didn't fall all the way down after graduating last season's senior class, but needs another victory to clinch a winning season.
Huntingdon athletics photo

Being an independent on the Division III level is tough. The two independents covered by this column, Huntingdon (5-4) and LaGrange (3-5) have certainly found that out the past two seasons. But their geographic location and close proximity have made them two peas in a pod.

Back in 2008, the schools, which are about 100 miles apart in the Alabama/Georgia border, were affiliated with the Saint Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and played on the season’s final weekend for an NCAA playoff bid. Then, after two other SLIAC schools stopped sponsoring football, both were forced back to independent status.

LaGrange won that 2008 game to advance to the playoffs, making them one of the great stories on that year. The program, which begin in 2006, had lost its first 20 games.

In 2009, Huntingdon, which begin its program in 2003, paid them back in the season finale to earn its first NCAA playoff bid.

And though both teams have no playoff hopes this season, both have a lot to play for when they match this Saturday in Georgia at Callaway Stadium.

“We both have a lot on the line,” said Hawks coach Mike Turk, whose team wraps up it season on Saturday looking for its third straight winning season. “For us it would be going 6-4 instead of 5-5. For them, it would be (a chance at finishing at) .500. They have a game (at Centre) after us, but it will wrap it up for us.

“It’s a big game for a lot of reasons. Coach Mooney is a great friend of mine. Our programs have grown up together. There’s a lot a stake. The radius is 100 miles between us; we end up at the same schools on the same days recruiting kids.”

“We know their program very well and they know ours very well. We play a varsity game and two JV games every year just about. Our coaches know their coaches and our players know their players. Games like these are what it is all about. They’re a lot like us and we’re a lot like them and whoever plays the best is probably going to win.”

Perhaps all this rivalry lacks in a nickname and trophy to play for. Huntingdon and Birmingham-Southern, the only two D-III programs in Alabama playing football, compete for the “Wesley Cup.”

“We don’t play for anything, we should,” Turk said. “If we were smart enough, we’d probably come up with something. But so far it’s just been for bragging rights.”

But aside from a developing rivalry and familiarity, the schools also share a desire to join a conference. The conference that they share in other sports doesn’t sponsor football.

“It is (frustrating) to a degree,” Turk said, “Making your schedule out is like is like trying to do a jig-saw puzzle every year.

“Most teams are already in conferences, it’s ready hard to get annual dates with them unless it’s in September. The October and November games, they’re playing conference games. Most of the conferences rotate the open dates, so you can’t get more than a one or two year deal with somebody.

And the teams that they do end up playing are often among the best in their conferences.

“The teams that are out their looking for games are the teams nobody wants to play,” Turk said. “They’re calling us and we don’t have anybody to play. So we’re playing them and taking it on the chin a time or two.

“We’ve both played teams that are ranked. Our programs are still young, so it doesn’t hurt to play somebody like that occasionally to find out where you are and where you need to get to. But it’s discouraging sometimes.”

 Huntingdon has played teams from four different conferences this season: SCAC (BSC, Trinity and Millsaps), USA South (Maryville), ACFC (Salisbury and Wesley) and ASC (Louisiana College). After starting the season 3-0, they dropped four in a row, before winning their last two.

“It was a rough stretch, but we played some pretty good football teams,” Turk said. “A couple of times we didn’t play real well, didn’t play as well as we needed to have a chance to win.”

LaGrange has played many of the SCAC schools (BSC, Millsaps, Rhodes and on November 13 Centre), USA South (Maryville and North Carolina Wesleyan), ACFC (Newport News). They also had to travel MIAA power Trine and hosted D-II North Greenville.

Combined the two programs have played opponents from 13 different states. The range includes as far north as Delaware, as far south as Florida and as far West as Texas.

But while being accepted into another conference would help solve scheduling difficulties, nothing appears imminent at this point. The USA South may be the logical fit for both with Shenandoah leaving to join the ODAC. But at this point it’s a waiting game for both programs.

This Week’s Games
Austin (4-3, 2-2 SCAC) at DePauw (8-0, 6-0):
The Roos still have a shot at their first winning season in ten years under first year coach Loren Dawson. But beating Depauw and Trinity back-to-back is never easy. The Tigers will looking to avoid a trap game and go 9-0 for the first time in school history before the Monon Bell game next week.

Trinity (3-5, 1-3 SCAC) at Centre (4-4, 2-3): The Tigers could finish below .500 for the first time since the early 1990’s and Centre certainly had higher expectations at the start of the season too. We’ll see who has more pride in match up.

Birmingham-Southern (5-3) at Rhodes (3-5, 2-3): The Panthers have plenty of motivation and will look to clinch a winning season for the first time on the D-III level. They look among the contenders for next year’s SCAC crown. The Lynx pulled off a homecoming upset win last week over Centre after losing four straight.

Mary Hardin-Baylor (8-0, 6-0 ASC) at Sul Ross State (1-6, 1-5): There haven’t been many easy wins for the Crusaders this season until last week. Despite a long bus ride to SRSU, UMHB should have plenty of motivation. They can clinch the ASC title with this win. Does Lobo senior quarterback Monte Morales have enough bullets to pull the upset?

Mississippi College (4-4, 2-4 ASC) at Texas Lutheran (3-5, 2-4): The Choctaws have climbed out of the ASC cellar with two straight victories, while the young Bulldogs hope turn around a recent skid after a surprising start.

Louisiana College (4-3, 4-1) at McMurry (5-2, 3-2): There should be a lot of points scored in this game. The Wildcats rank No. 1 in the nation in scoring, while McMurry is 16th. But can McMurry keep up with quarterback Jake Mullin, injured last week against Hardin-Simmons, out of the lineup?

East Texas Baptist (3-5, 2-4) at Howard Payne (2-6, 1-5): The Tigers take the field for the first time since taking conference leader UMHB into overtime a couple weeks ago. The Yellow Jackets didn’t have quite as much luck against the Crusaders in losing 45-3 last week. ETBU appears to have more momentum at this point as the season winds down.

Contact Info
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Justin Goldberg

Justin Goldberg is a newspaper copy editor and freelance writer in southwest Virginia. Originally from New York, he played Division III basketball in that colder region of the country, but moved to Virginia in 2008 to earn his M.F.A. in creative writing. He has written for multiple publications, including C-VILLE Weekly and The Roanoke Times. He is happy to join for his first season as the Around the South columnist.
2013 columnist: Andee Djuric
2012 columnist: Kyle Robarts
2008-11 columnist: Jason Bowen

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