No longer beasts, East trying to break back through

Cortland's season ended at Linfield in 2015
Since 2006, teams from the East Region have had their seasons end in a variety of ways and places, such as Cortland losing in the second round at Linfield in 2015, a year after Linfield won in a blowout at Widener in the quarterfinals.
d3photography.com file photo by B. Scott Presley

By Adam Turer

Tom Arth 2002 file photo
Although the Division III football playoff selection committee had the power to move teams around as early as 1999, they didn't really do it until moving John Carroll into a bracket of East Region teams in 2002. JCU, the No. 7 seed in a seven-team bracket, won at Hobart, Muhlenberg and Brockport to advance to the national semifinals.
John Carroll athletics file photo

A team from the East region has not advanced to the national semifinals since St. John Fisher won three playoff games in 2006.

Why is that? Starting in 1999, the NCAA expanded the tournament from 16 to 28 teams and introduced automatic bids. This did away with the previous format, a 16-team tournament featuring four teams in each of the four regions. The tournament expanded even further in 2005, to its current 32-team field. What was once a regional final evolved into a national quarterfinal, unbound by location.

There have still been plenty of talented East Region teams who have entered the postseason coming off of undefeated regular seasons. Before the rise of Mount Union in the 1990s, the East region reigned, led by Ithaca’s three national titles.

It may just be a coincidence or unfortunate playoff bracketing. But it’s curious that one region has been shut out for so long. How can the East get back over the hump and into the final four?

In honor of a decade of being stopped short of the semifinals, I polled ten coaches from East region programs (Before joining the NJAC in 2015, Wesley was a member of the South Region). Some have advanced to the quarterfinals before. Some lead programs that have Stagg Bowl history. Some hope to be the program to break through in the near future.

The AQ dilemma

The 16-team format guaranteed the best team from the East would get within one win of a Stagg Bowl appearance. Since 2007, there has not been a quadrant of the bracket comprised of eight East region teams.

“I did like the old East regional, where you play to see who’s top in East, West, North, South,” said St. John Fisher coach Paul Vosburgh. “But you still might not end up with the four best teams.”

Could the third-best team from one conference consistently defeat the winner of another conference? Almost every year. The pressure to win your conference in order to secure a playoff berth is real. With eight conferences from the East receiving automatic qualifiers, the margin for error is razor thin.

“I’m very much in favor of if you win conference, you make the playoffs,” said Alfred coach Bob Rankl. “Although I understand how that might not benefit the Empire 8, it’s better for college football.”

“Look at the East, there’s so many conferences and so much shuffling going on. Conferences shuffle themselves to get the automatic bid to get in,” said Rowan coach Jay Accorsi. “Just because you win your conference you’re a good team, but does that mean you’re one of the best teams in the country?”

The Profs appeared in five Stagg Bowls in the 90s, and made five other semifinal appearances. But the most recent one was in 2005. The NJAC has become even more competitive with recent additions of Christopher Newport and Wesley. The Empire 8, Liberty League, and MAC also consistently roll out multiple teams capable of advancing in the postseason.

Where they've ended up

The top East Region team in the bracket has lost to a variety of opponents before reaching the semifinals. In true Division III fashion, they all happen to wear purple.

2007: No. 2 seed St. John Fisher (9-1) loses at Mount Union in the quarterfinals, 52-10

2008: No. 2 seed Ithaca (9-1) upset by fellow East team Curry in Round One. Cortland then beats Curry. Cortland loses at Mount Union in the quarterfinals, 41-14

2009: Albright (9-1) upsets Alfred and Delaware Valley, then loses at Mount Union in quarterfinals, 55-3.

2010: No. 2 seed Cortland (9-1) upset by Alfred (8-2) in second round. Alfred loses at Mount Union in quarterfinals, 37-7.

2011: St. John Fisher (8-2) upsets Delaware Valley (10-0) in Round Two, loses at St. Thomas in quarterfinals, 45-10. Salisbury (9-1) loses at UW-Whitewater in quarterfinals, 34-14.

2012: Hobart (10-0) loses at St. Thomas in quarterfinals, 47-7. Widener (9-0) loses at Mount Union in quarterfinals, 72-17.

2013: St. John Fisher (8-2) upsets Hobart (9-0) in the second round, loses at Mary-Hardin Baylor in quarterfinals, 45-23.

2014: Hobart (10-0) loses at Wesley in quarterfinals, 41-13. Widener (10-0) loses at home in quarterfinals to Linfield, 45-7.

2015: Wesley (9-1) loses at Mount Union in quarterfinals, 56-35.

2016: Alfred (10-0) loses at home to Mount Union in quarterfinals, 70-45.

“I don’t think there’s any hiding on our schedule anywhere to be found,” said Ithaca’s first-year head coach Dan Swanstrom. “I like there being payoff for winning your conference. I’m glad we have an automatic qualifier. I also understand the flipside.”

Not every strong team from the East even gets the opportunity to prove what it can do against a powerhouse from another region during the regular season. Advancing in the playoffs is often the only opportunity.

“Scheduling is brutal. Getting to 10 games is not easy,” said Brockport coach Jason Mangone. “If you play one game in a different region, your budget is crushed.”

When Rowan advanced to face Linfield in the 2004 semifinals, the Profs were divided into three different flights with three different layovers. The NCAA committee has made great progress in creating better early-round matchups and last year paid a bit extra to do so. But, it’s inevitable that financial considerations are in play when building the bracket each year.

“If money’s an issue, play the region like we used to, save the money, and get true regional representation,” said Accorsi. “I think it would be unfair for a team like Delaware Valley to run the table and not get a top seed.”

With such a thin margin for error, cross-regional non-conference games are few and far between. There are still opportunities for quality non-conference games, but the top teams in the East will rarely venture out to face a top-10 team from the West, South, or North.

“Football is the only sport where people schedule not to lose. I think all the coaches know that your margin for error is not there at all,” said Wesley coach Mike Drass, whose Wolverines opened the season against Delaware Valley. “At the end of the year, that one game is going to help your strength of schedule. If you’re playing someone that’s pretty good in the non-conference, it’s going to help you.”

The powers to the west

Why has the East has been unable to break through? It could be as simple as a large purple wall in Alliance, Ohio.

“When they re-seeded and started changing the whole format of the tournament with automatic bids, I think it changed the landscape unfortunately for the East,” said Accorsi. “With Mount Union being closer to the East than most schools, that threw it for a different spin as well. It’s a combination of changing of format, changing of selection, rankings, seeding.”

No matter how good the best team in the East is, there is still a Division III juggernaut about 30 miles from the Pennsylvania border. In seven of the past 10 seasons, the Purple Raiders have ended the season of one of the East’s top teams.

“Obviously the strength of Mount Union and fact that they’ve been thrown in with the East quite a few times has been a bit of a roadblock at times,” said Rankl. “I wouldn’t be surprised in the next few years to see that trend change.”

What separates those teams in purple from the teams out East?

“There is a group above the East right now. Have we caught those teams yet? The answer is no,” said Hobart coach Mike Cragg, who has led his program to two recent quarterfinals appearances. “It takes a while. We were just knocking on the door to get to the tournament, then the sweet 16, then the elite 8. There’s doors you have to keep knocking down.”

Depth is what usually separates teams in the postseason.

“We’ve been preaching since we took over that we want to be sustainable and be good every year. Obviously, there’s a lot of luck involved from a health factor,” said Mangone. “When you see a good team, you have to look at the 2’s. You’re going to need several 2’s to contribute if you want to make the playoffs or make a deep run.”

Play in the trenches can separate championship teams from other contenders. 

“When I see elite teams, I see a lot of elite offensive lines. When you’re able to win the battle on the line of scrimmage, you’re going to have a really good football team,” said Drass. “Over the years, when we’ve had some good offensive lines and great defensive lines, we’ve been successful.”

The programs that have advanced to the quarterfinals have drawn from those experiences. They’ve seen up close what separates those Stagg Bowl programs from the best of the East.

“We’ve had the chance to face St. Thomas and Mount Union — they’re at another level,” said Cragg. “That’s not to say that on any given Saturday a team from the East can’t knock them off, because it’s going to happen someday.”

Swanstrom is in a unique position, building up a program with one of the richest traditions in Division III. Those championships feature prominently in recruiting and in daily messages to his new team. The next step is building the Bombers back into a championship-level program.

“Something I noticed while at Johns Hopkins playing against Mount Union and Wesley: They have good players, but it’s the overall confidence in their program and belief in their ability to execute that brings it to a whole different level,” said Swanstrom. “That’s the ultimate building block of the program — getting that ultimate confidence in your execution.”

So far this season, Delaware Valley has played as well as any team in the nation. The Aggies still have work to do just to make the postseason, including a MAC showdown with Widener on Nov. 11. If they can take care of business in their next three games, the Aggies’ next goal will be to make the deepest run an East program has made in over a decade.

“The MAC is always tough. To get out of our conference is an accomplishment in itself,” said Aggies coach Duke Greco. “Hopefully this year, it changes. Hopefully it changes in the next few weeks. I’m just hoping we get the opportunity to prove ourselves.”

There is no longer an East region champion. In order to advance, a team from the region is going to have to get the job done on the field against one of the nation’s perennial powers.

“The reality is,” said Swanstrom, “someone’s got to beat Mount Union; someone’s got to beat Mary Hardin-Baylor.”

Bobby Dougherty brought down behind the line.
Bobby Dougherty and his Hobart teammates did not find a lot of running room in a 47-7 loss at St. Thomas in the 2012 quarterfinals.
Photo by Scott Pierson, d3photography.com

Too many teams, not enough players

The East is by far the most saturated of the four regions in Division III. That impacts non-conference scheduling and Pool A bids. Most of all, it impacts recruiting.

“It seems like every year I’ve been coaching, recruiting is more competitive and gets harder and harder every year,” said Greco.

“All the East teams, we recruit all the same kids. Every team we play against is recruiting those same kids,” said Mangone. “You have 15 to 19 schools going after one guy. There’s just a ton of people. Then you have the D-II schools hitting the area so hard to fill their rosters.”

The D-III map shows how concentrated programs are in the region. Springfield, which is off to an undefeated start and aiming for a Pool B bid this year, knows this well. There are two other D-III programs and a Division II program within 20 minutes of campus.

“There’s so many teams in the northeast here. It makes it challenging in recruiting,” said Pride coach Mike Cerasuolo. “We have four Division III conferences here in New England alone. I think everybody’s going for the same recruits. It’s difficult with just the amount of schools and there’s less kids to choose from each year.”

The efforts coaches put in from December through July are just as crucial as the 10 Saturdays in the fall.

“You look at the Empire 8, it is a competitive conference from top to bottom,” said Rankl. “We’re all recruiting the same kids. Competition isn’t just going on on the field.”

The numbers game is putting coaching staffs in a predicament.

“More teams are adding Division III football while high school football is declining,” said Vosburgh. “Recruiting is getting tougher and tougher. Recruiting is more competitive than ever.”

Coaches are faced with a decision to increase their budget and expand their recruiting base in order to find elusive talent who isn’t already being recruited by their rivals.

“You have some very good schools here and there, but football overall compared to Texas, Florida, California, it’s not at the same level and it’s being saturated by even more coaches,” said Cragg, “so it becomes even more difficult to find those difference-makers on your team. Because you’ll need those difference-makers to beat those teams.”

Although not a hotbed for high school football like Texas or Ohio, the region still produces quality players year in and year out.

“People may not think that the East is not as strong as other areas, but I think the talent is absolutely there. There’s always going to be good kids with good grades,” said Mangone. “Sometimes, it works in your favor where it might be in your backyard. Sometimes you might have to sell it to a kid who’s six hours away.”

Mount Union at Alfred
Even with Mount Union coming to their turf, Alfred couldn't pull off the trip to the semifinals, losing 70-45 to the Purple Raiders in 2016.
d3photography.com file photo

No clear solution

The NJAC (.547), Empire 8 (.537), and MAC (.524) all have winning playoff records since 1999, when automatic qualifiers were introduced to the Division III tournament. Those three conferences have also earned enough respect to regularly have a runner-up considered for a Pool C bid. The opportunity to advance to the Stagg Bowl is there.

“I think the best teams in the country are getting in. There have been teams that are 9-1 and got omitted and that’s a shame. But I don’t think there’s been a top five or eight team that’s been omitted,” said Drass. “With 32 teams, the top eight teams are going to get in. Certainly there are some conferences that aren’t as strong. That is a crying shame when a team is as good as the top 32 but doesn’t get in, but I understand the process.”

When given the opportunity, Pool C teams from the East have proven that they belong. St. John Fisher is the poster child for a bubble team that belongs. Twice in recent years the Cardinals entered the tournament at 8-2 via Pool C, then advanced to the quarterfinals.

“You would like to say that we’re going to have the top 32 teams play off. That’s not necessarily ever going to happen,” said Vosburgh. “You want to give everybody an opportunity to be in the playoffs. It’s a tough scenario to choose the 32 best teams. There will always be that 33rd team that gets left out.”

“I don’t know where this perception came from that the East isn’t one of the stronger regions. I think it’s one of the tougher regions because there’s more teams and it’s harder to get through.”

Players’ Corner

Trai Weaver As part of my attempt to rekindle a love for football, I’ll be reaching out to players all season long to give them space to explain why they love the game. This week’s guest is Anna Maria senior Trai Weaver. Once the Amcats wide receiver realized the NBA wasn’t in his future, he fell hard for football.

I really fell in love with football my junior year of high school. Even though I started playing football when I was 7 years old, I thought I was going to be a basketball player all my life until my junior year of high school when I really fell in love with football and focused mainly on that. That's when I really developed my love and passion for the game.

I still love football for many reasons but one of the main reasons being the brotherhood you create with others. When you play football, your teammates become an extension of your family and those are people you will never forget. I still love football because it teaches you many life lessons, how to be mature and responsible but most of all I still love football because I have the same amount of fun that I had when I first started playing a long time ago.

If you or someone you know would like to be featured in Players’ Corner this year, please reach out to me at any time.

What do you know? Do you know things? Let's find out!

There are so many worthy stories to be told and I can’t find them all on my own. Please share with me those stories that make you passionate about Division III football. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at adam.turer@d3sports.com. Thanks for reading!

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Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to D3football.com since 2007 and is in his third season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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