November 20, 2012

For Wittenberg, it's win or else

More news about: Wittenberg
Wittenberg, including receiver Desi Kirkman, didn't give up when down by 22 points.
Wittenberg athletics photo

By Brian Lester
D3sports.com

If you take a moment and understand the mentality of the Wittenberg football team, you begin to see why perhaps the wild and thrilling 52-38 comeback win over Heidelberg in the opening round of the Division III playoffs isn’t so crazy after all.

Yes, to overcome a 22-point deficit in the playoffs, against an Ohio Athletic Conference opponent on the road no less, is no easy task, but the Tigers (10-1) have been in win-or-else mode since losing to North Coast Athletic Conference rival Wabash in the middle of the season.

“We’ve been like a band of brothers and have taken the approach of it’s us against everyone else,” said senior kicker Sean Williams, one of the top kickers in program history and a nominee for the Fred Mitchell Award. “We are a tight group and we have been focused. I think it made a difference for us on Saturday. We were very resilient and it was an exciting game to win.”

The Tigers trailed 21-3 early and were in a 31-13 hole at halftime. Williams, who had two brothers play for Wittenberg as well, accounted for six of the points in the first half, including three on a 41-yard field goal in the opening quarter. It was his first field goal of the year from 40-plus yards.

Coach Joe Fincham has been at Wittenberg for nearly 20 years. He has been a part of a lot of big wins since taking the job in 1996 after six years as an assistant. This is the ninth time Fincham has taken the Tigers to the playoffs, although this trip seemed destined to end quickly considering the way the first half played out.

“We didn’t get off to a good start, and part of that was a credit to Heidelberg and part of that was the fact that we put ourselves in bad situations,” Fincham said. “I got text messages asking me if I had someone record my halftime speech, but I told them they would be disappointed because it wasn’t anything special. Most of the fire and brimstone talk came from the players. My message to them was to just keep playing hard until the end.”

Turns out, the Tigers took the message to heart and looked like a different team in the final 30 minutes.

Heidelberg scored only one touchdown in the second half and was limited to 138 yards. The Tigers’ offense roared to life, as Wittenberg beat an OAC team in the playoffs for the first time since 1978.

Williams started things off with a 29-yard field goal before Reed Florence shredded the Student Princes for four touchdown passes, including a 2-yard scoring strike to Desi Kirkman to give the Tigers their first lead at 38-31 early in the fourth quarter.

Florence went 31 of 49 for 346 yards, the second-best performance in program history, and Kirkman caught 10 passes for 104 yards. Brendon Cunningham caught eight passes for 94 yards and three scores.

Heath Eby sealed the deal for the Tigers when he returned an interception 60 yards for a score, catapulting Wittenberg into a second-round showdown with Hobart on Saturday.

“We had better field position in the second half and we got turnovers. Those two things help you win football games,” Fincham said. “I also thought our quarterback got hot at the right time. He made some big plays with his arm and his feet and our defense came up with some timely plays. The momentum started to shift. It put pressure on them and made it easier for us to play.”

But shifting the momentum in a pressure-packed playoff game isn’t easy. It’s not as if the Tigers were up against some pushover near the bottom of a conference. Heidelberg, making its first appearance in the playoffs, was the second best team in the OAC, its only loss a 33-14 setback to top-ranked Mount Union.

“I’ve been in the playoffs nine times as a head coach here and I’ve seen our teams win and lose games every way known to man,” Fincham said. “When you fall behind against a team in the playoffs, it is very tough to try and come back. Sometimes when you try to catch up, you end up further behind. Our guys never quit. They believed in themselves and found a way to win.”

As a senior, the win was extra special for Williams, who is 11 of 13 on field goals and 51 of 54 on point-after attempts this year. He holds school records for consecutive field goals (19) and PATs (50).

Williams admits there was a little pressure on him, especially in the first half when points were tough to come by for the Tigers.

“There is always a little pressure on you as a kicker, especially when you are losing and you need points,” Williams said. “But I credit the coaching staff for trusting in me to make those field goals. I was glad I could hit them.”

Off the field, Williams is a volunteer for youth football camps in his hometown of Plainfield, Ind., and at Wittenberg. He is also a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity and at the Springfield Regional Medical Center. Williams has even worked as an intern at Rocking Horse Community Health Center.

“I was a backup as a freshman, but I got to travel and experience the trip up to Wisconsin-Whitewater for the playoffs,” Williams said. “It was tough losing to Ohio Northern in the playoffs my sophomore year because we had a great (regular) season. To not make it last year was a disappointment. It fueled the motivation for this year.  We were driven to get back to the playoffs.”

The playoff dream almost died, however, as the Tigers suffered a 27-24 loss at home to Wabash in the fifth game of the year. Wittenberg trailed 13-3 at the half but nearly rallied for the win.

The Tigers maintained a fighter's mentality, though, and never lost again, rattling off five consecutive wins to close the regular season and clinch a share of the NCAC championship and a playoff berth thanks to winning a tiebreaker with Ohio Wesleyan.

“It was a tough loss, especially to a rival, but we got back to playing good football again,” Fincham said. “We knew to have a chance at the playoffs we had to win out. Our guys played hard and really grew up. Now, we are playing with house money. We have to put the Heidelberg game behind us and get ready to play a very good Hobart team. All we can do is play our best and see what happens.”

Hobart is unbeaten at 11-0 after rolling to a 38-20 win over Washington and Lee in its first playoff game.

Playing on the road won’t be easy, but the Tigers know that if they can play up to their potential, a trip to the national quarterfinals will become a reality late Saturday afternoon.

“We just have to stay focused and be ready to play for 60 minutes,” Williams said. “We have a good tradition here at Wittenberg. We expect to have success in the playoffs and hopefully we can play good enough to get another win. We want to keep this going as long as possible.”

Sep. 30: All times Eastern
Final
Randolph-Macon 24, at Shenandoah 19
Box Score
Final
at Washington and Lee 49, Emory and Henry 23
Box Score
Oct. 1: All times Eastern
End of 2nd
20 Massachusetts Maritime
0 Fitchburg State
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End of 2nd
21 Becker
12 Gallaudet
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HALF
10 Merchant Marine
14 Hobart
Video Live Stats Audio
HALF
20 RPI
6 Rochester
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End of 2nd
14 Endicott
7 MIT
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2nd - 0:08
10 Juniata
38 Johns Hopkins
Video Preview Preview Live Stats Audio
1:00 PM
Montclair State at William Paterson
Live Stats Audio
1st - 07:01
0 Hamilton
7 Wesleyan
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1st - 04:04
0 Bates
0 Tufts
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1:00 PM
Wabash at Hiram
Video Live Stats
1st - 06:03
0 Middlebury
0 Colby
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1st - 13:14
0 Amherst
0 Bowdoin
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1:00 PM
Frostburg State at Kean
Video Live Stats
1st - 07:45
0 Kenyon
10 DePauw
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1:00 PM
Ferrum at Greensboro
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1:00 PM
Maryville (Tenn.) at Methodist
Video Live Stats
1:00 PM
FDU-Florham at Wilkes
Video Live Stats
1st - 07:02
0 Anna Maria
3 Castleton
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Start of 1st
0 Moravian
0 Ursinus
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1:00 PM
Stevenson at Misericordia
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1:00 PM
Springfield at St. Lawrence
Video Live Stats Audio
1:00 PM
Thomas More at Westminster (Pa.)
Video Live Stats Audio
1st - 10:05
14 Alma
7 Kalamazoo
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1:00 PM
Franklin and Marshall at Dickinson
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1st - 06:27
0 Wesley
0 Southern Virginia
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1st - 07:40
7 Adrian
0 Albion
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1st - 07:57
6 Husson
3 SUNY-Maritime
Video Live Stats
1st - 07:40
14 Apprentice
0 Alfred State
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1st - 08:37
6 TCNJ
7 Salisbury
Video Live Stats Audio
1:00 PM
Buffalo State at St. John Fisher
Video Live Stats Audio
1:00 PM
Salve Regina at Curry
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1:00 PM
McDaniel at Gettysburg
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1:00 PM
Delaware Valley at Lebanon Valley
Video Live Stats
15:00 1st
0 Ohio Wesleyan
0 Denison
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15:00 | 1st
0 Utica
0 Ithaca
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1st - 03:22
7 Alfred
0 Morrisville State
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1:00 PM
Western New England at Nichols
Video Live Stats
1:00 PM
King's at Albright
Video Live Stats
1st - 08:08
0 Catholic
14 Guilford
Video Live Stats
1st - 05:46
7 Muhlenberg
0 Susquehanna
Video Live Stats Audio
1st - 06:41
7 Huntingdon
7 N.C. Wesleyan
Video Video Live Stats
1:00 PM
Minnesota-Morris at MacMurray
1st - 09:48
7 Birmingham-Southern
0 Chicago
Video Live Stats
1:00 PM
Westminster (Mo.) at Crown
Video Live Stats
1:30 PM
Oberlin at Allegheny
Video Live Stats Audio
1:30 PM
Mount Ida at Norwich
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1:30 PM
Trinity (Conn.) at Williams
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1:30 PM
Baldwin Wallace at Marietta
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1:30 PM
Muskingum at Heidelberg
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1:30 PM
Union at WPI
Video Live Stats
1:30 PM
Maine Maritime at Coast Guard
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1:30 PM
John Carroll at Wilmington
Video Live Stats Audio
1:30 PM
Mount Union at Ohio Northern
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1:30 PM
Franklin at Manchester
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1:30 PM
Mount St. Joseph at Hanover
Video Live Stats
1:30 PM
Widener at Lycoming
Video Live Stats Audio
1:30 PM
Defiance at Earlham
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2:00 PM
Concordia-Chicago at Trine
Video Live Stats Audio
2:00 PM
Capital at Otterbein
Video Live Stats Audio
2:00 PM
Plymouth State at Westfield State
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
Wittenberg at Wooster
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2:00 PM
Anderson at Rose-Hulman
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2:00 PM
Hampden-Sydney at Bridgewater
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2:00 PM
Waynesburg at Grove City
Video Live Stats Audio
2:00 PM
Cortland at Hartwick
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
Centre at Hendrix
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2:00 PM
Eureka at Greenville
Video
2:00 PM
Northwestern (Minn.) at Iowa Wesleyan
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
Concordia (Wis.) at Lakeland
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
Rockford at Benedictine
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
Aurora at Wisconsin Lutheran
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2:00 PM
Nebraska Wesleyan at Luther
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
Rhodes at Sewanee
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2:00 PM
Lake Forest at St. Norbert
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
Concordia-Moorhead at Gustavus Adolphus
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2:00 PM
Hamline at Carleton
Video Live Stats Audio
2:00 PM
St. John's at Bethel
Video Live Stats Audio
2:00 PM
UW-Whitewater at UW-Platteville
Video Live Stats Audio
2:00 PM
Buena Vista at Loras
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
Sul Ross State at Hardin-Simmons
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
UW-Stevens Point at UW-Eau Claire
Video Preview Live Stats Audio
2:00 PM
Beloit at Lawrence
Live Stats
2:00 PM
Cornell at Monmouth
Video Live Stats Audio
2:00 PM
Wartburg at Coe
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
Dubuque at Central
Video Live Stats Audio
2:00 PM
Wheaton (Ill.) at Illinois Wesleyan
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
McMurry at Mary Hardin-Baylor
Video Live Stats Audio
2:00 PM
Elmhurst at Augustana
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
Macalester at Ripon
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
Grinnell at Illinois College
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
Howard Payne at Louisiana College
Audio
2:00 PM
UW-River Falls at UW-La Crosse
Video Live Stats Audio
2:00 PM
East Texas Baptist at Belhaven
Video Live Stats
2:10 PM
Augsburg at St. Thomas
Video Live Stats
3:00 PM
Washington and Jefferson at Thiel
Video Live Stats
3:00 PM
Maranatha Baptist at Morthland
Video
3:00 PM
St. Scholastica at Martin Luther
Video Live Stats
3:00 PM
Carthage at Carroll
Video Live Stats
3:00 PM
UW-Stout at UW-Oshkosh
Video Preview Live Stats Audio Audio
4:00 PM
Willamette at Puget Sound
Video Video Preview Live Stats Audio
4:00 PM
Whittier at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps
Video Live Stats
4:00 PM
Pacific at Pacific Lutheran
Video Preview Preview Live Stats Live Stats
4:30 PM
Lewis and Clark at Linfield
Video Live Stats Audio
5:00 PM
Framingham State at Mass-Dartmouth
Video Live Stats
5:00 PM
Averett at LaGrange
Live Stats
5:00 PM
Whitworth at George Fox
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6:00 PM
Olivet at Hope
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6:00 PM
Bethany at Carnegie Mellon
Video Preview Preview Preview Live Stats Audio
6:00 PM
St. Vincent at Case Western Reserve
Video Live Stats Audio
6:00 PM
Christopher Newport at Rowan
Video Live Stats Audio Audio
6:00 PM
Bridgewater State at Western Connecticut
Video Live Stats
7:00 PM
Berry at Washington U.
Video Video Preview Preview Live Stats Live Stats Audio Audio
7:00 PM
North Park at Millikin
Video Live Stats
10:00 PM
Pomona-Pitzer at Chapman
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10:00 PM
La Verne at Cal Lutheran
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10:00 PM
Occidental at Redlands
Video Live Stats Audio
Oct. 1: All times Eastern
HALF
10 Merchant Marine
14 Hobart
Video Live Stats Audio
2nd - 0:08
10 Juniata
38 Johns Hopkins
Video Preview Preview Live Stats Audio
1st - 08:37
6 TCNJ
7 Salisbury
Video Live Stats Audio
1:00 PM
Thomas More at Westminster (Pa.)
Video Live Stats Audio
1:00 PM
Wabash at Hiram
Video Live Stats
1:00 PM
Buffalo State at St. John Fisher
Video Live Stats Audio
1:00 PM
Stevenson at Misericordia
Video Preview Live Stats Audio
1:00 PM
Springfield at St. Lawrence
Video Live Stats Audio
1st - 06:41
7 Huntingdon
7 N.C. Wesleyan
Video Video Live Stats
1:30 PM
Mount Union at Ohio Northern
Video Preview Preview Live Stats Audio Audio
1:30 PM
Franklin at Manchester
Preview Live Stats
2:00 PM
Wittenberg at Wooster
Video Preview Live Stats Audio
2:00 PM
Wheaton (Ill.) at Illinois Wesleyan
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
UW-Whitewater at UW-Platteville
Video Live Stats Audio
2:00 PM
St. John's at Bethel
Video Live Stats Audio
2:00 PM
McMurry at Mary Hardin-Baylor
Video Live Stats Audio
2:00 PM
Sul Ross State at Hardin-Simmons
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
East Texas Baptist at Belhaven
Video Live Stats
2:00 PM
Dubuque at Central
Video Live Stats Audio
2:10 PM
Augsburg at St. Thomas
Video Live Stats
3:00 PM
UW-Stout at UW-Oshkosh
Video Preview Live Stats Audio Audio
4:30 PM
Lewis and Clark at Linfield
Video Live Stats Audio
6:00 PM
Christopher Newport at Rowan
Video Live Stats Audio Audio