Five rounds, five journeys

By Pat Coleman

RESTON, Va. — My playoff odyssey might not have been as interesting or nearly as long as Pacific Lutheran's, but I can at least claim credit for about 4,500 miles traveled this postseason in pursuit of Division III football.

Thankfully, a family vacation to Minnesota for Thanksgiving accounted for about half that distance. And thankfully my 2-year-old remembers what I look like. But that includes two games at St. John's, one at Montclair State, one at Mount Union and the Stagg Bowl in Salem. That's a game in each bracket except for the South, my home region.

Each of these towns has a unique relationship with its team, but none more than one Alliance, Ohio. In fact, we'll see if they ever invite me back after their team lost for the first time in four years on my first visit!

Talk before that game ranged from a particularly incendiary Terry Pluto column in the Akron Beacon Journal regarding Rowan's roster, to the possibly mythical Danny Sheridan line on the game favoring Rowan by nine, to reports that head coach Larry Kehres was interested in the Princeton head coaching job.

This is a group of people that considers Salem a second home, that still chuckles over the Johnnies of St. John's after a playoff blowout from 1993 and that basically bleeds purple.

After the game, silence from the Alliance crowd. Except for the hundreds of people standing outside the Mount Union locker room, applauding each player as he exited.

More than an hour after the game ended, one lone Mount Union senior was walking the field for one last time, with his head down. Hopefully he'll remember the 54 games his graduating class won, not the one that got away.

Even later, one person was upset that she had already gotten airplane tickets to Virginia. What, you can't drive to Salem?

Like much of small-town America, this is a friendly group of people. OK, so I didn't meet famed poster "Wartburg Fan," but I met all the nice ones. I'm told I haven't missed anything.

And in case I had forgotten in my six-hour drive home the historical significance of the game I had witnessed, the local Washington, D.C., all-news radio station reminded me. The Streak is over.

Long live Alliance.

Salem is similar. Maybe it's because there are so many Mount Union fans there. Though this was my first Stagg Bowl, it was my third trip to Salem — the two for two previous men's basketball Finals Four.

Though, at least Salem is on an interstate.

Salem always manages to put on a show. It's a town that loves its Division III athletics, relishes its semi-annual moments in the sun, and with apologies to Frosty Westering, they make the big time where they are. And they turn out for the games as well. With one team that traditionally does not travel well (Rowan) and another from 3,000 miles away (Pacific Lutheran) how else did they draw more than 4,000 for the game?

I imagine not too many other places have the mayor of the town out for the official banquet. Let me know if I'm wrong, but I'm sure Rudolph Giuliani wasn't around for the 1997 women's Final Four!

Here's looking forward to another trip to Division III's Titletown in March.