|St. Scholastica athletics photo by Jack Rendulich|
This season has been like a track race for Tyler Harper and the St. Scholastica football team.
The Saints stumbled over their first hurdle, suffering a season-opening loss at Whitworth. But since then, they have cruised to nine consecutive wins.
Now there is one final obstacle between St. Scholastica and their season goal— winning the program's first playoff game.
The Saints will get that opportunity after defeating rival Greenville, 27-21, Saturday to win the UMAC championship outright and reach the postseason for the third year in a row.
Last year the Saints made the NCAA Division III playoff field. After tying Greenville and Northwestern (Minn.) they received the conference's automatic bid by winning a random draw.
“Last year, as you can probably imagine, it was pretty nerve-wracking sitting on that bus and knowing that there are three teams in that hat and any one of them could be drawn. We were blessed that we were the ones that were drawn,” Harper said. “This year, we really didn't want to take that chance to be the team not drawn. We wanted to go out and win it outright.”
Harper played a key role in St. Scholastica's win, completing 18-of-30 passes for a career high 274 yards.
“The defense came out and had a couple key stops and gave us momentum,” Harper said. “We had some wide receivers make some good routes. Offensive linemen stepped up because they're a pretty blitz-heavy team.
“We just kind of worked as a unit,” he continued. “It all just kind of played together. We kept feeding off each other.”
Harper had a hand in all three touchdowns the Saints scored in a 21-point second quarter. Trailing by seven after one period, the St. Scholastica quarterback threw a 43-yard touchdown to Cory Gebhard and hooked up with Josh Simmons for a 75-yard strike.
“Josh Simmons is a pretty fast fella. He just had a really good post route, and I just had to put it out there where he could go get it,” Harper said. “Once he caught it, there's no catching him.”
Then as the first half expired, Harper scrambled for an 8-yard touchdown run to give the Saints a 21-7 lead that they would not relinquish.
“Tyler did a great job Saturday. We knew they were going to stack the box to try and shut down our good running back Jake Jensen, so we felt like we were going to have to throw the ball some,” CSS coach Greg Carlson said. “Tyler did a great job recognizing the coverages, finding the open receiver and making a good throw. I think he hurt them a little bit with his feet too.”
The win at Francis Field was one of several key road victories for St. Scholastica this season. The Saints also picked up wins at Eureka, Northwestern (Minn.), and Crown — all of which finished in the top half of the league.
“Basically, we played the next four best teams on their field. It's a credit to our kids to be able to win on the road the way they have been,” Carlson said. “We've been a good road team. The last three years, we have not lost a conference game on the road.”
“We had to go down and play some pretty good teams at their home field,” Harper added. “It took a lot of hard work.”
Carlson credited Harper for some of the team's success, noting his quarterback has cut down on mistakes and has made better choices when throwing the ball.
“He's very competitive, deeply absorbs the offense but he's a little bit of a riverboat gambler,” Carlson said. “We've been working with him to make better decisions, cut down on turnovers. And in the second half of the season he's done much, much better in both those categories.”
Harper threw three interceptions in the team's loss to Whitworth. He has improved since then, raising his completion percentage to 59.4. He has thrown 16 touchdowns to seven interceptions since Week 1.
“For that first game of the year, we were all kind of nervous. We lost a few guys on offense and defense from last year. It was the longest road trip we ever had,” Harper said. “We were able to see where our strengths were as a team and where our weaknesses were. We were able to kind of build off those and set the tone for the beginning of the conference season.”
“I think we came back to campus knowing that it's never going to be easy — there's more that we can do on gameday than we did up there,” Carlson added. “It did kind of refocus the football team.”
Now the team can focus on its preseason goal. The fledgling program that began in 2008 will try for its first playoff win. The Saints will find out who they play after this weekend, but regardless of who it is, they will approach it with the same attitude.
“It's going to probably be our toughest opponent of the year,” Harper said. “We're just going to try and treat this like we treated Greenville — just like we treated Eureka. It's just a business trip.”
Conference races are wrapping up and a few automatic playoff berths have been secured in the West Region.
Bethel became the outright MIAC champion after handing St. Olaf a 47-0 drubbing to stay unbeaten on the season. The win guaranteed the Royals a share of the championship and a playoff berth, but they won it outright when Concordia-Moorhead fell to St. Thomas, 34-20. Now the Cobbers and Tommies are tied with St. John’s at 7-2 overall and 5-2 in MIAC play.
Redlands clinched a share of the SCIAC crown. The Bulldogs (6-2 overall, 6-0 SCIAC) are one game ahead of Chapman in the standings, but own the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Panthers, securing the conference’s playoff bid.
Likewise, UW-Whitewater and Linfield have punched tickets to the postseason with shares of the WIAC and NWC conference titles, respectively. The Warhawks have a one-game lead and own tiebreakers over UW-Oshkosh and UW-Platteville while Linfield has a half-game advantage over Pacific Lutheran with a head-to-head win over the Lutes.
Wartburg knows it will claim at least a share of the IIAC championship following a slim 16-14 win over Central this weekend. However the Knights need to win at Loras or have Coe lose on Saturday to grab the conference’s playoff position.
The rest of the West
Whittier snapped an eight-game losing streak dating back to last season by topping Occidental 59-52. Steven Rivera threw a touchdown and rushed for another in the fourth quarter to help the Poets pick up their first win of the season. Rivera finished the game 17-of-25 for 314 yards and four touchdowns. … Bobby Brown’s 4-yard run as time expired lifted Buena Vista to an upset victory over IIAC rival Simpson, 34-32. Brown passed for 377 yards and three touchdowns to lift the Beavers’ to their third straight win after starting the season 0-6. … Pacific Lutheran overcame four turnovers to defeat Whitworth 28-21. The Lutes finished the season 8-1 overall and 5-1 in Northwest Conference play after scoring a pair of late touchdowns to hold off the Pirates. … Jack Kaiser rushed for 134 yards and three touchdowns, leading St. Thomas past MIAC foe Concordia-Moorhead. … Blake Robles threw two touchdown passes – including a 70-yard strike to Dorrell Baugh – and Tyler Winders kicked a 26-yard field goal to lift Eureka over Crown, 17-14. Robles, who completed 33-of-44 passes for 320 yards, finished the season with a school record 215 completions. … Adolpho Pacheco rushed for 139 yards and a touchdown to help UW-Stout survive a scare from winless UW-River Falls, 19-18. Jesse McKune scored on a 1-yard run for the Falcons, but the ensuing point after failed.
A total of 13 teams in the West Region were recognized in this week’s Top 25 poll. The West has seven teams in the Top 25, including five top-10 teams.
Linfield picked up an additional first place vote this week as the Wildcats remain ranked No. 2 nationally.
UW-Whitewater leap-frogged Bethel in the poll. The Warhawks are No. 5 while the Royals sit at No. 6.
UW-Oshkosh stayed put at No. 8 while rival UW-Platteville moved up one spot to No. 11.
Pacific Lutheran and St. Thomas both rose two spots to Nos. 13 and 18, respectively.
Concordia-Moorhead dropped out of the Top 25 this week, but still received 26 votes. Willamette (25), Redlands (22), St. John’s (22), Wartburg (4) and Coe (2) also received votes this week.
Number of the week
99 – as in the number of yards in Justin Howard’s record-setting kickoff return in UW-Whitewater’s 17-7 win at UW-Stevens Point Saturday. Howard – who also averaged 30.5 yards on a pair of punt returns – finished the game with 160 total return yards and broke the school’s record for longest kick return. He helped UW-W secure at least a share of its 33rd WIAC championship, which ties UW-La Crosse for the most in league history.
No. 6 UW-Oshkosh hosts No. 10 UW-Platteville with a trip to the playoffs likely on the line. Both teams enter the game with one loss apiece. A year ago, the Titans won the WIAC title for the first time in 36 years and made their NCAA D-III playoff debut, advancing to the national semifinals. Meanwhile UW-P is looking to make the NCAA D-III playoffs for the first time.
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