December 8, 2009

Classic gives seniors one final game

By Ryan Tipps
D3football.com

Quincy Hudson (UW-Plattevile), Chad Woodfork (Otterbein) and Andreas Platt (Greensboro) represented the South in the D-III Senior Classic.
D-III Football Senior Classic photo
SALEM, Va. -- Perhaps the biggest hurdle the organizers of the Division Three Football Senior Classic wasn't logistics, wasn't coaching, wasn't the roster -- it was skepticism. Could this event be pulled off in a way that maintained Division III's core philosophies while also showcasing the talent at this level?

Coaches are watching. The NCAA is watching. Even the NFL was watching. But in putting on an event like this, having the city of Salem in your corner is one of your best bets.

While talking with players and parents, there was no question as to the excitement of being in Salem, home to the Stagg Bowl since 1993, as well as giving these college seniors one last chance to play.

The opportunity to take the field “was the deciding factor,” said Steve Javorek, whose son, Jeff, from John Carroll, quarterbacked the South team. “I felt it was a nice honor for him to get picked.”

Karen Mitchell, the mother of North team signal-caller Ian Mitchell (from Dickinson), braved the cold rainy weather with her husband on Saturday to see their son take the field for the final time. “We were excited, one more chance to play,” she said.

Only a couple hundred visitors, most trying to show off their school colors despite the rain jackets and ponchos, nestled in for the game. That, coupled with the vacancies across the press box, were a stark contrast to the energy that will fill the stadium in two weekends when the Stagg Bowl is played. As always, thousands of fans and national media will descend on the stadium on Dec. 19.

So why play the Senior Classic now, while many star athletes are still in the playoffs and with many of the best players heading for the Tazon de Estrellas matchup in Mexico? While the timing may not be the best, that could change sometime down the road.

George St. Lawrence, who, with his son Peter, founded and organized the event, hopes to turn the Senior Classic into a showcase event on the same weekend as the Stagg Bowl, creating a one-stop Division III mecca in Salem.

“The city of Salem was an unbelievable host,” St. Lawrence said. “They welcomed us with open arms.” For all of its experience, few would expect anything less from the city.

The St. Lawrences began putting the game together just three months ago. They said they started with a list of 600 potential athletes and whittled it down as injury and timing took its toll. As the final week closed in, the organizers also brought in players who they say were “overlooked” earlier on.

“We really had to have a flexible roster right up until the day we arrived down here in Salem,” Peter St. Lawrence said.

Participants had to plunk down $350 as well as travel costs to play, which made the game heavy on Midwest, southeast and northeast region athletes. The elder St. Lawrence noted that a couple players from Cal Lutheran wanted to take part, but financially it couldn't work. With so little time to put the event together, sponsorships -- and by extension, financial assistance for the players -- do not yet exist.

Students arrived on Wednesday, and began practicing that night. More practices were held the next two days, with the pregame events culminating in a banquet Friday evening.

“Traveling back and forth [between the field and the hotel] on the buses, the first day it was quiet; the second day, there were a few kids in the back talking; and on the third, they were all just talking. And then on game day, you've seen it, you've seen the relationships really grow,” said Peter St. Lawrence, who played at St. Olaf.

It's clear that both Peter and George St. Lawrence have a passion for Division III and that they have lofty ambitions for how this all-star game can grow.

“You can feel that power every time you talk to somebody – player, coach, parent, administrator, anybody – when they're around the football, you can feel that camaraderie,” the younger St. Lawrence said.

“I know there's a lot of skepticism about D-III football being unable to host a game like this, but you're seeing it right now,” said his father, a high school coach, teacher and athletic director. “Getting the opportunity to play one more game, on this field, is very special to the players out there.”

For all of the success in building camaraderie and relishing in Division III football pride, the game lacked a crispness that you would find among teams that have played together for longer periods. The day was ruled by defenses -- the score tied at zero going into the half. Neither offense, aside from a couple reverses, was able to bring a lot of creativity to the play-calling, but that was due more to the short time the players had together rather than to the imagination of the coaching staff.

Greensboro's two entrants into the game were among the South's stars: defensive back Andreas Platt nabbed his team's first interception and was crucial to slowing the North's passing game; defensive lineman Brandon Drumgoole pressured his opposing quarterback relentlessly.

The North succeeded in getting points on the board, finishing with a 14-0 win. Three quarterbacks -- Dickinson's Mitchell, Kalamazoo's Brandon Luczak and Gettysburg's Matt Flynn -- traded duties under center. But it was MIT running back DeRon Brown, who lives a short drive away from Salem, who put the game's first points on the board.

“I'm so far away that my parents don't get to come up there very often, except maybe for one game a year,” Brown said. “So to be here, in my home state … for my last game on the field, getting the first score, making history, this is a dream come true.”

Much as the parents described, the players say they had a glowing opportunity in this game, a chance to prove themselves among top-caliber colleagues.

“This is a great opportunity to represent Division III football because a lot of guys don't get to represent. It's always about Division I, Division II, and that's pretty much it. That's all you hear about,” said Platt, the Greensboro defensive back. “But we get a chance to show that we have talent as players.”

Where does a game like this go in the future?

Well, for starters, a redrawing of the team boundaries will be considered. Few Ohioans have ever thought of themselves as being in the South. Aside from a couple of UW-Platteville athletes who had to help balance the roster by playing on the South team, the organizers said the roster stuck to the original configuration they drew, including Illinois and Ohio in the South and Pennsylvania split up. This could change as the organizers hone their setup, which may use an East-West configuration next year.

“I think this is going to be a good springboard for this game,” said John Troxell, Franklin and Marshall's head coach who served as the South's offensive coordinator. “I think there's going to be more and more publicity, there's going to be better and better kids here.

The St. Lawrences “have a lot of heart and passion to keep this going,” he said.

Javorek, the parent of a South team quarterback, echoed that: “Talk about enthusiasm. We were at the banquet last night, and it practically radiated from them. You could tell how excited they were this was going to happen. And I think that kind of rubbed off” on the players.

The 82 players involved, and many close to them, were pleased with how the event turned out. Will it improve? Likely. But the bottom line is that it's here.

“There are 238 D-III schools,” Peter St. Lawrence said, “and a lot of people were saying to us that this is long overdue.”
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