November 15, 2012

Getting second life

More news about: Bethel | Pacific Lutheran
Erik Peterson's first year as a starter has been a successful one.
Photo by Scott Pierson, d3photography.com 

The Johnson household got to be nerve-wracking the last few weeks when Bethel coach Steve Johnson and wife Susan would go through scenarios and the odds of getting in to the Division III playoffs.

"Sometimes it's agonizing – my wife and I are like, ‘what's the percentages’," Steve Johnson said. "Then you lie and start telling yourself so you can get to sleep 'We're OK, we had a nice year.’"

There's no fibbing required this year, however, as the Royals made the postseason for the second time in three years and will travel to Concordia-Chicago on Saturday.

"One of the incredibly good things is playing somebody else," Johnson said. "We play in a terrific league, the kids know each other. When we get out of our league it's a lot of fun."

The margin for error was very slim for the Royals as they won three games by five points or less, including two one-point wins over Augsburg and Concordia-Moorhead. The win 15-14 win over the Cobbers came in part after Concordia-Moorhead celebrated after it thought the game was over when recovering a fumble. Either of those games go the other way, the Royals season would've ended.

"The bad news is your guys can't slip up," Johnson said about the MIAC league. "Everybody's so good. There's not a week that goes by that is a gimme. It's a battle every week and it just keeps you in shape."

And a potential against the Cougars, since Concordia-Chicago has not seen a ranked opponent this season.

"I think that Concordia-Chicago has seen some good players," Johnson said. "They might see some good teams and good players, but it's not an every week thing."

The last two times in the playoffs have been highly successful for Bethel as both times ended in the national semifinal before losing to perennial powerhouse Mount Union.

"I think it makes a difference that we have a pretty good history in the playoffs," said Johnson about being selected. "I think that does help."

Quarterback Erik Peterson has supplied a heavy dose of the Royals offense. He has thrown for 1,921 yards on 166-of-249 attempts. He also has 13 touchdowns and six interceptions. On the ground, Peterson adds 266 yards and tied for a team high seven touchdowns. Marshall Klitzke is the leading rusher with 353 yards and four touchdowns. On the receiving end, Mitch Hallstrom leads the Royals with 61 catches for 663 yards. Jay Hilbrands leads the Royals in receiving touchdowns with six. He also has 37 catches for 442 yards.

Additionally, the Royals are a healthy group right now.

"First time I've had all five starters on the offensive line," Johnson said. "We feel pretty good about how healthy we are. We tell our kids you aren't going to feel good until Christmas. We're battered and bruised but we're as healthy as we've been to be honest."

 And for the Royals to move on, it's going to have to come out fast.

"We're going to be very physical and simple and sound in our approach and we need to execute and we're ready for it," Johnson said. "It's going to take execution and the passion to play well. I think both teams are good but I think we have more speed (all around)."

Lutes in playoffs for first time since 2001

Two seasons ago, Pacific Lutheran only lost to Northwest Conference champion Linfield and did not make the playoffs despite a 8-1 record and topping the SCIAC champion, Cal Lutheran. This season, the Lutes finished 7-2, but played a stronger schedule than two years ago.

"That really helped our cause," Our body of work and our conference’s body of work."

PLU's lone conference loss was to the Wildcats in Week 3 a 31-24 loss. The Lutes had Linfield up by two touchdowns twice in that game.  The two teams will square off in McMinnville, Ore., Saturday afternoon.

"We're such a different team than then," Westering said. "As young as we were then, the growth and maturity we had mentally to battle them like we did. It's one thing to say it and think you can and it's another thing to know you can."

That was the last time a team toppled PLU. Six wins later the Lutes are in the playoffs.

 We've had growth and maturity from captains and seniors," Westering said, "the young guys learning how to compete, learning how to play."

A trio of sophomores have led the Lutes offensively in quarterback Dalton Ritchey and wide receivers Kyle Warner and Kellen Westering. Ritchey has thrown for 2,439 yards on 163 of 273 attempts, 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

"He's a tremendous young man, just a joy to coach," Westering said. "He's humble and talented. It's been just a joy as a coach to watch him grow as a quarterback and as a leader within his season."

Warner has been Ritchey's main target with 55 catches for 1,059 yards. "He's just a special football player who makes huge plays," Westering said. "He's tall and angular. Even in Kellen's absence, Kyle still did a tremendous job as a player."

Kellen Westering returns from a leg injury that sidelined him for two games. While healthy, the younger Westering caught 29 balls for 484 yards and four touchdowns.

"It's miraculous," Westering said of having his son come back. "It's a big wow to have him back."

The Lutes and Wildcats will be sure to have a huge crowd with as many as three deep surrounding the stadium.

"It's got potential in the makings to be a tremendous college football team," Westering said.

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Josh Smith photo

Josh Smith covers high school and Division III athletics for the Daily Jefferson County Union in Fort Atkinson, Wis. He has won multiple awards for reporting and photography and contributes to multiple publications in addition to his duties at the Daily Union, including D3football.com beginning in 2012. He graduated from UW-Whitewater with a degree in print journalism.

2011-12 columns: Jason Galleske
2010: Tim Walsh
2003-09: Adam Johnson
1999-2000: Don Stoner 

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