/playoffs/2012/st-thomas-aims-to-be-known-for-offensive-line

UST aims to be known as OL U

More news about: St. Thomas
Luke Marks, backup tight end Matt Allen, Curtis Hames, Jason Flesher, David Simmet and fullback Willie Schneider all get on their assignments in the Tommies' ground game.
Photo by Scott Pierson, d3photography.com 

By Jason Bailey
D3sports.com

The undefeated Tommies owned a two-touchdown lead. They possessed the ball in enemy territory. They were 152 seconds away from reaching the first Stagg Bowl in school history.

And St. Thomas head coach Glenn Caruso grimaced.

The directions were clear. Caruso wanted to drain as much hope from the UW-Oshkosh sideline as possible, pointing to the play clock while telling the line judge to call timeout just before it expired. “One second. No more.” But when the official blew his whistle, two seconds remained.

It was a minor misstep, but every detail is important when you’re rebuilding a program.

Since Caruso took the reins of a 2-8 team before the 2008 season, the Tommies are 57-7 with two NCAA quarterfinal appearances, a trip to the semifinals, and now a national championship berth. The next challenge St. Thomas (14-0, 8-0 MIAC) faces is Mount Union (14-0, 9-0 OAC), a perennial power that has won 10 national titles while playing in 15 of the past 19 Stagg Bowls.

That’s a dynasty by any definition, and St. Thomas has potential to create its own because of a demanding and meticulous coach whose attitude trickles down to his players. Although they’re not a flashy team loaded with superstars, it’s impossible to ignore the growing pile of victories.

“A lot of people thought I was crazy,” said Caruso, a former center at Ithaca. “I told anyone who was willing to listen that we were going to build this program around the offensive line. I think a lot of people wondered why. You have a lot of places that are Quarterback U or Linebacker U.”

There are the obvious physical benefits to building a solid offensive line. St. Thomas uses about 1,500 pounds of synchronized smashes — sophomore left tackle T.J. Woodrow, sophomore left guard Ulice Payne III, senior center Curtis James, junior right guard Jason Flesher and freshman right tackle Luke Marks — to fuel a run-oriented offense that relies on sophomore quarterback Matt O’Connell’s mobility and freshman running back Brenton Braddock’s vision.

But the group that has allowed only 15 sacks also brings stability in another way.

St. Thomas upholds the offensive line as a symbol of the attitude – fulfill your role without regard for outside recognition — it demands from every player. The offensive line sits in the front row during offensive meetings, starters filling the five seats to the left of Caruso. Their lockers are in the middle of the locker room, they eat first at team meals, and they lead the Tommies onto the field before games. It’s a unique experience for the sport’s least glamorous position.

“(When) they walk across campus, everybody probably waves and shakes hands with the tailback and the quarterback and the outside linebacker,” Caruso said. “But they probably don’t jump up and down when they see the left guard walking into the union.”

Prioritizing the offensive line is already paying dividends. James and Marks joined the program after redshirt seasons at Minnesota and South Dakota State while Flesher played at Division II Minnesota State-Moorhead for two years. They follow in the footsteps of all-American center Josh Ostrue (2008, 2009, 2010) and tackle Dan Chapman (2011).

St. Thomas takes pride in wearing down opposing defenses, as it did last week in a 16-play first-quarter drive against UW-Oshkosh.
d3photography.com file photo by Ryan Coleman 

Offensive line coach Joe Lepsche said that fielding big, athletic players along the offensive line helps St. Thomas wear down opponents during a game. The Tommies had 58 rushing attempts in their 28-14 semifinal win over UW-Oshkosh, continuing to chip away even though their longest run was only 17 yards. It marked the fifth time they reached 50 carries this season.

“Yardage that we pick up is great. Touchdowns we score are fantastic,” James said. “But what we take the most pride is in the fourth quarter when the other team is huffing and puffing.

“You can just see the look in their eyes. They definitely know what’s coming. We can feel that as an offensive line, and we take advantage of it like a pack of hungry dogs.”

That ferocity originates from James and tight end Logan Marks, the only senior starters on an extraordinarily young offense. Marks is an extension of the offensive line who enjoys blocking and is usually the top target on play-action passes, ranking second in receptions (45), receiving yards (506) and total touchdowns (seven) for St. Thomas. James must be intelligent enough to quickly identify defensive fronts while brutish enough to push defenders around seconds later.

The Jekyll-and-Hyde act can be seen in neighboring photos on Caruso’s desk: James reveals a nasty scowl while burying an opposing nose guard in one; he holds two of Caruso’s children in the other. James harnessed the former while motivating the offense with a staccato rally before the UW-Oshkosh game. The latter spills out in interviews, where his passion is equally evident.

“They follow that energy and attitude I’m able to portray,” James said. “If I come off as fearless against a team we play like Mount Union, it starts to infiltrate their psyche as well.”

Confidence is shared by the entire St. Thomas program, which has finished undefeated in the MIAC for three consecutive seasons. Despite showing flashes of excellence during this regular season, James and Marks said the offense didn’t truly hit its stride until the playoffs began.

Against talented playoff teams, St. Thomas has adopted the goal of picking up first downs. By chaining together those small victories, the offense will inevitably score touchdowns with the outside zone plays where running lanes are created by tight ends in motion or pulling guards.

“It’s just ‘will’ and ‘want,’ ” Lepsche said. “It comes down to being selfless and that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to throw our body in there. A lot of it has to do with timing. Keeping your chest up, eyes up, getting a good punch and running through the defender.”

Effort is important because perfection is impossible. Even James struggled against Oshkosh by fumbling one snap and forcing O’Connell to snag several others. It wasn’t a case of nerves, James said, but rather the defense keeping him preoccupied by disguising their pre-snap looks. Fixing those mistakes has been a top priority this week considering the national title is at stake.

St. Thomas has taken a surprising squad to this year’s Stagg Bowl while avoiding the traditional Division III powers. But the seeds for beating St. Norbert, Elmhurst, Hobart and UW-Oshkosh this postseason were planted long ago. St. Thomas isn’t afraid of the dirty work needed to grow.

“It’s been there since the second I stepped on campus freshman year,” Marks said. “This year has been a testament. We’ve had so many guys step up when we need them. It’s everybody having the backs of the person next to them. It’s definitely been instilled from Day One.”

Oct. 14: All times Eastern
Final
Salve Regina 45, at Nichols 10
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Mount Ida 14, at Dean 7
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at Thomas More 59, Waynesburg 7
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Final
at Maine Maritime 34, Coast Guard 16
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at Finlandia 27, Trinity Bible 21
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Hamilton 28, at Bowdoin 7
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at Delaware Valley 49, King's 14
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at Olivet 47, Albion 26
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at Wesleyan 41, Bates 23
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Union 27, at Rochester 0
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Amherst 40, at Colby 7
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at Western New England 41, Endicott 14
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at Brockport 48, Morrisville State 7
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Final - OT
at Plymouth State 16, Framingham State 13
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at RPI 27, Ithaca 14
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Final
Hobart 49, at Hartwick 27
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at Ferrum 34, LaGrange 20
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at Carnegie Mellon 42, Geneva 27
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Ohio Wesleyan 16, at Wabash 13
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DePauw 26, at Denison 17
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at Trine 42, Kalamazoo 7
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at Washington and Lee 47, Guilford 26
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at Husson 49, Castleton 0
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Gallaudet 35, at Alfred State 19
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at Wittenberg 49, Allegheny 15
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Brevard 41, at Methodist 17
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at Lebanon Valley 31, Stevenson 24
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Buffalo State 24, at St. Lawrence 21
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Final - OT
at Cortland 20, Alfred 17
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at Randolph-Macon 52, Emory and Henry 29
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at Wesley 29, Kean 9
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at Hampden-Sydney 58, Apprentice 28
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Frostburg State 59, at William Paterson 7
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at N.C. Wesleyan 45, Greensboro 0
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at Westminster (Pa.) 49, Grove City 27
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Washington and Jefferson 49, at Bethany 14
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at Westminster (Mo.) 56, Crown 15
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at Northwestern (Minn.) 29, Iowa Wesleyan 7
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at Knox 56, Grinnell 14
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at Widener 31, Lycoming 17
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Trinity (Conn.) 23, at Tufts 16
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at Mount St. Joseph 66, Earlham 7
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Final - 2OT
Ohio Northern 27, at John Carroll 20
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Final
Baldwin Wallace 23, at Muskingum 20
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Final
at Mount Union 72, Capital 14
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Rose-Hulman 44, at Manchester 13
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at Hanover 31, Bluffton 28
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Defiance 45, at Anderson 0
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at Wartburg 42, Loras 11
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Hiram 62, at Kenyon 56
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Springfield 35, at Merchant Marine 13
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Williams 27, at Middlebury 26
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at Westfield State 33, Fitchburg State 21
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Marietta 43, at Wilmington 33
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at Berry 34, Hendrix 10
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Curry 40, at Becker 0
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TCNJ 20, at Rowan 14
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at SUNY-Maritime 51, Anna Maria 15
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Salisbury 28, at Montclair State 10
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at Huntingdon 28, Maryville (Tenn.) 16
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at Austin 33, Millsaps 19
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at Mary Hardin-Baylor 65, Howard Payne 0
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at Washington U. 55, Buena Vista 20
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Alma 27, at Aurora 19
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at Rockford 29, Concordia-Chicago 14
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Wisconsin Lutheran 22, at Concordia (Wis.) 19
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at Lakeland 57, Benedictine 21
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at St. Norbert 10, Chicago 0
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Concordia-Moorhead 45, at Hamline 0
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Final
St. Olaf 22, at Augsburg 20
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Final
Bethel 24, at Gustavus Adolphus 3
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St. John's 35, at Carleton 0
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at Eureka 30, Greenville 19
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Final
Centre 27, at Trinity (Texas) 21
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Final
Dubuque 42, at Nebraska Wesleyan 27
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Central 30, at Coe 19
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Final
Lake Forest 56, at Cornell 28
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at Carthage 31, Elmhurst 8
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at Illinois Wesleyan 30, Carroll 0
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Final
Millikin 28, at Augustana 27
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Final
Ripon 52, at Beloit 28
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Final
MacMurray 49, at Minnesota-Morris 13
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Final
Macalester 21, at Lawrence 18
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Final
at Monmouth 59, Illinois College 14
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at UW-Stevens Point 26, UW-Eau Claire 3
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Final
Case Western Reserve 63, at Thiel 28
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Final
at Wooster 38, Oberlin 28
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Final
Texas Lutheran 41, at East Texas Baptist 34
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at UW-Stout 21, UW-River Falls 16
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Final
UW-Oshkosh 28, at UW-Platteville 14
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Final
Sewanee 34, at Birmingham-Southern 13
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Final
at Hope 22, Adrian 3
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Final
Linfield 49, at Lewis and Clark 14
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Cancelled
La Verne at Occidental
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Final
Whitworth 17, at Pacific Lutheran 14
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Final
at Cal Lutheran 42, Claremont-Mudd-Scripps 20
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Final
at George Fox 58, Willamette 12
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Final
at Pacific 35, Puget Sound 27
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Final
Pomona-Pitzer 45, at Whittier 23
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Final
at Western Connecticut 28, Massachusetts Maritime 21
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Final
at St. Scholastica 56, Martin Luther 21
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Final - 5OT
at St. John Fisher 39, Utica 36
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Final - OT
at Heidelberg 48, Otterbein 45
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Final
at Shenandoah 38, Bridgewater 20
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Final
Southwestern 60, at Belhaven 31
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Final
Hardin-Simmons 35, at Sul Ross State 10
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Final
at Louisiana College 52, McMurry 34
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Final
at Simpson 38, Luther 17
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at Chapman 45, Redlands 26
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Oct. 16: All times Eastern
Final
at Wheaton (Ill.) 42, North Central (Ill.) 20
Box Score Recap
Oct. 20: All times Eastern
7:00 PM
Gettysburg at Johns Hopkins
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Oct. 14: All times Eastern
Final
at Delaware Valley 49, King's 14
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Final - OT
at Cortland 20, Alfred 17
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Final
at Wesley 29, Kean 9
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Final
Frostburg State 59, at William Paterson 7
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Final
at Wittenberg 49, Allegheny 15
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Final
at Brockport 48, Morrisville State 7
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Final
Washington and Jefferson 49, at Bethany 14
Video Box Score
Final
Ohio Wesleyan 16, at Wabash 13
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Final
at Mount Union 72, Capital 14
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Final
at Wartburg 42, Loras 11
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Final
at Berry 34, Hendrix 10
Video Box Score Recap
Final
Springfield 35, at Merchant Marine 13
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Final
at Mary Hardin-Baylor 65, Howard Payne 0
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Final
St. John's 35, at Carleton 0
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Final
at Illinois Wesleyan 30, Carroll 0
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Final
Concordia-Moorhead 45, at Hamline 0
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Final
Case Western Reserve 63, at Thiel 28
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Final
UW-Oshkosh 28, at UW-Platteville 14
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Final
Linfield 49, at Lewis and Clark 14
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Final
at George Fox 58, Willamette 12
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Final
Hardin-Simmons 35, at Sul Ross State 10
Box Score
Oct. 16: All times Eastern
Final
at Wheaton (Ill.) 42, North Central (Ill.) 20
Box Score Recap
Oct. 20: All times Eastern
7:00 PM
Gettysburg at Johns Hopkins
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