November 23, 2011

Coast to coast

More news about: Linfield | Wesley

Mickey Inns, Shane McSweeny
Mickey Inns, left, and Shane McSweeny (with Steve Koudossou) lead their teams into Saturday's second-round game.
Inns by Rusty Rae, McSweeny and Koudossou Wesley athletics photo

By Andrew Lovell
D3sports.com

Safety Drew Fisher and cornerback Christian Hanna give the Linfield secondary senior experience.
Linfield athletics photo

One team has reached the NCAA semifinals four times since 2005, while the other is just seven seasons removed a Stagg Bowl title, the last by a team other than Mount Union or UW-Whitewater.

One calls Dover, Del., its home; the other, McMinnville, Ore. One is ranked No. 7 in the country, the other is ranked No. 5. But when this Saturday rolls around, and Linfield and Wesley line up for their second-round matchup, it will mark a first for both storied programs.

In a rare Division III battle of the coasts, Linfield will come east for the first time since the 2004 Stagg Bowl to face Wesley in arguably the best matchup so far of this year's playoffs.

This Linfield-Wesley matchup isn't your normal second-round game. In fact, it's one Linfield coach Joe Smith said deserves a better buildup.

"It's great for Division III [but] it's ridiculous that it's in round two," Smith said. "I think that's an absolute sham. This should be a semifinal-type matchup, or at least a quarterfinal matchup, and I think that's a disservice to the two programs, but there are seven or eight teams [that can win the Stagg Bowl] and these are two of them."

How do two of the top seven teams in the country end up playing in the second round of the playoffs? It's simply a byproduct of the NCAA's layout of this year's bracket. The Mary Hardin-Baylor quadrant, which features Linfield and Wesley, is loaded. All eight of the teams were ranked 31st or higher in the final D3football.com poll of the regular season. Like Smith, Wesley coach Mike Drass noticed that immediately upon viewing the bracket.

"I thought the eight teams in our region were extremely talented," Drass said. "I don't know what other people think, but in my humble opinion ... it seems like there's a heck of a lot of talent on the teams in our [bracket]."

While it was confirmed that Mary Hardin-Baylor was the No. 1 seed, seeds for the other seven teams weren't revealed. So Smith and Drass didn't find out until Sunday morning which team was hosting. With nearly 3,000 miles separating the two schools, there was a little more at stake than usual. Smith was discouraged to find out his squad drew the short end not only travelwise, but timewise as well. The noon ET kickoff will feel like 9 a.m. for coaches and players used to living out west.

"It's a huge challenge, and I think that's something that I'd like to see changed in Division III for teams that are facing a three-hour time difference earlier," Smith said. "It's really only the west teams. ... It's ridiculous. You're getting a wake-up call at, what seems to you, at 4:30 in the morning. That's just not very conducive."

Smith said the Wildcats have played four games in central time zone areas, such as Wisconsin and Minnesota, over the last eight years. To his knowledge, a 2004 matchup with Rowan stands as Linfield's only matchup with an East Coast team.

Drass, who has been forced to travel long distances in past postseasons, understands what Linfield is up against, but admitted he was relieved his team was selected to host.

"Without question [we're happy to be hosting]," Drass said. "We've been in this situation before. We had to fly to Texas around Thanksgiving and you're trying to do everything you can to take care of your families, take care of kids. You have to try and do your best to help your families, but you've got to travel your team."

The Wildcats will fly out to Delaware on Thanksgiving itself, Smith said. Ultimately, the travel and time zone difference only underscore the true value of this game -- a potentially classic matchup between two of Division III's best teams over the last decade.

The numbers speak for themselves -- Linfield is 93-15 since 2002, including 14-5 in the playoffs. That includes a Stagg Bowl title and another NCAA semifinals appearance in 2009. Wesley is 99-21 since 2002, including a 16-6 mark in the playoffs. That includes four NCAA semifinals appearances since 2005.

"I think it's an exciting game," Drass said. "... Here are two teams, when people talk about some of the better football teams in Division III, our names have both come up. It's a great opportunity for a West Coast school to play an East Coast school, and vice versa. That's exciting."

Wesley and Linfield both had to grind out wins in the first round, a theme that will likely continue for the winner of Saturday's contest.

Wesley held off a banged-up Hobart squad 35-28, but made the game closer than it should have by turning the ball over four times inside its own 20-yard line. The Wolverines also allowed a blocked punt, which Hobart returned for a third-quarter touchdown to keep things close.

Quarterback Shane McSweeny was sharp, completing 18 of 27 passes for 336 yards and five touchdowns, while rushing for 61 yards.

"Shane, obviously, is our leader," Drass said. "When he's having success, we're having success."

Mike Asiedu
Mike Asiedu is second on the Wolverines in tackles and has a 90-yard interception return to his credit.
Wesley athletics photo

Askia Jahad, a bigger back with above-average speed, has stepped in nicely for Brandon Wright, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL in the Wolverines' seventh game of the season. Tight end Sean McAndrew (30 receptions, seven touchdowns) is McSweeny's security blanket in the passing game. Wide receivers Matt Barile and Steve Koudossu are both big-play threats, while Jeremiah Howe is a reliable slot/possession-type of receiver.

Defensively, the Wolverines boast a fast, athletic unit, led by defensive end Chris Mayes. Defensive tackle Paul Gilstrop and linebackers Jeff Morgan, Mike Asiedu and Sosthene Kapepula are also key factors on one of the country's best defenses.

Linfield quarterback Mickey Inns (2,448 yards, 28 touchdowns, six interceptions) has been one of the country's most consistent signal callers this season. Inns threw for 152 yards and tossed touchdowns to three receivers in the Wildcats' 30-27 win over Cal Lutheran in the first round. Running back Josh Hill also had a strong day, rushing for 146 yards and 27 carries. Drass said Hill has 2,000-yard potential and will be a key focal point for Wesley's defense.

Linfield sits at 10-0 and is coming off a third straight Northwest Conference title. Wesley, an independent, enters the game with a 10-1 mark, its only loss coming in the second week to Kean. Drass said that loss served as a wake-up call. So much so, in fact, that Drass said the Wolverines tallied their "turning point" victory just three weeks later against Charleston Southern, a Division I FCS team with 60 scholarship players.

"After we lost to Kean, I thought, as a team, we had one of two directions to go," Drass said. "We went through that same situation in 2009 when we lost to Delaware Valley the first game of the season. We know the drill, you can't lose, especially if you're independent like we are, or in the Atlantic Central, which was only a four-team league back then."

The winner of Saturday's matchup will likely earn a quarterfinal matchup with Mary Hardin-Baylor, which faces McMurry in the second round. But for now, both coaches are focused on their new -- and quite formidable -- opponents.

"We're pretty excited about it," Smith said. "We've never been to Delaware, I've never been there. It's fun to go somewhere new and those guys are a good coaching staff. We're pretty excited about it, it'll be fun."

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