Hot starts create unlikely unbeatens

K.J. Pretty hauls in a catch that lives up to his name in a come-from-behind win vs. McDaniel. The Diplomats are 4-0.
Franklin & Marshall athletics photo

By Adam Turer

Reaching November goals is often impossible without a strong September.

As we head into the final weekend of the season’s first month, 39 teams sit at either 3-0 or 4-0. Many are the usual suspects, including 18 teams ranked in the latest Top 25 poll. Others are off to more historic starts.

Buffalo State is 3-0 for the first time since 1999. Brockport is 4-0 for the first time since 2003. Knox hasn’t started a season 3-0 since 2002. Frostburg State last started 4-0 in 1999. After an 0-8 campaign in 2016, Williams is off to a 2-0 start in the NESCAC.

Five conferences have three teams off to 3-0 or 4-0 starts — the American Southwest, Centennial, Empire 8, Presidents’, and the WIAC, which also has a pair of ranked 2-0 teams. The NCAC has four teams off to perfect 3-0 starts.

It takes great preparation, teamwork, and a little bit of luck to get this far into the season without a loss.

“We’re just really fortunate that the ball’s been bouncing our way. We’ve had 10 seniors that were part of our first real recruiting class here. They’re starting to see the fruits of our building process,” said Knox coach Damon Tomeo. “It’s been a tremendous thing to be a part of. We just try to be better today than we were yesterday.”

The number of perfect teams is guaranteed to be slashed following this weekend’s action. The following matchups feature teams that have yet to be defeated in 2017: Hardin-Simmons at East Texas Baptist, UW-Stout at UW-Platteville, Johns Hopkins at Ursinus, Denison at Wittenberg, and Buffalo State at Alfred.

There is no surefire key to a hot start. These 39 teams have gone about their successful September in a variety of ways.

Franklin & Marshall has just 11 seniors on the roster and was missing six starters on Saturday. That didn’t stop the Diplomats from holding off a late Susquehanna rally to improve to 4-0.

“We’ve got a resilient group, that’s for sure. We try and present that next-man-up mentality. Our kids play for each other, they’re playing hard, and they’re playing together,” said Dips coach John Troxell. “We’ve got a lot of grit. When you’re behind or things are tough, you know someone’s going to step up and make a play.”

Centennial Conference foe Ursinus has also been in this position before, starting 5-0 in both 2013 and 2014. The Bears were just 2-8 last season but are also 4-0 heading into this weekend’s showdown with Johns Hopkins. Maturation has led to more aggressive play on both sides of the ball.  

Stacey Gardner
Sophomore running back Stacey Gardner has averaged 124.3 yards per game in Ursinus' 4-0 start.
Ursinus athletics photo by David Morgan, Stylish Images

“We knew we had some good returning talent, particularly freshmen that were going to be sophomores. The emergence of our run game has exceeded expectations a little bit,” said Bears coach Peter Gallagher. “Our defense has been pretty opportunistic (11 takeaways). If you get the ball back and add extra possessions for your offense, things usually end up going well.”

Every coach spoke to his team’s experience. The Prairie Fire have benefitted from a senior quarterback, Matt McCaffrey, who now has 32 career starts under his belt. His leadership and development has helped his teammates’ build bonds that have been the key to Knox’s success.

“The foundation of every relationship in my opinion is trust,” said Tomeo, now in his fifth season leading the program. “There’s definitely an improved confidence in our guys. I think what it comes down to now is the trust they have in each other. Those relationships really allowed the foundation to be laid in the program.”

It’s just one game, but sometimes that first weekend can set the tone for an entire season. Heidelberg had dropped its season opener each of the past two years. Defeating Olivet on the road in the 2017 opener gave the Student Princes a boost that propelled them into the always grueling OAC slate.

“That first win really meant everything to our season. We hadn’t won our Week 1 game in three years,” said Student Princes coach Scott Donaldson. “No. 1, it gives your guys a lot of confidence, especially going into our bye week. It gave us so much confidence going into the OAC schedule. Now you can find things to build off of, but you have the confidence of that first win under your belt.”

The confidence skyrocketed after Saturday’s win over John Carroll catapulted the Student Princes to 3-0 and a Top 25 ranking. A home game against Mount Union looms on Oct. 7. This Saturday, Heidelberg travels to Muskingum, the definition of a trap game, according to Donaldson. All of these teams must learn how to handle their early-season success, and the new challenges that come with it.

“The toughest thing is you have to keep the team focused. I’m blessed with an unbelievable staff. They’re all OAC veterans. They know the gauntlet week in and week out,” said Donaldson. “You can’t sleep on anybody. It takes an extra importance now after a big win. You go from the hunters to the hunted real quick. Saturday was a great win for us, but now there’s a target on our backs.”  

Some coaches have even changed their strategies in an attempt to sustain early season success. Troxell emphasized his team’s workload in the offseason with a balanced approach to in-season preparation.

“The biggest thing for us is if we stay healthy, we’ve got a pretty good chance,” said Troxell. “We’ve had to really think about the way that we practice with our kids to make sure we get them to Saturdays. We’re spending more time doing film and preparing harder mentally than the physical part of it.”

The Dips started last season 6-1 before finishing 7-4. They started 4-0 in 2015 before finishing 6-4.

“We changed our lifting routine in-season to make sure we don’t wear kids down,” said Troxell. “We’re focusing on keeping guys fresh and healthy.”

Early season success requires chemistry and breeds confidence. The teams that have faith in each other and their coaching staff are able to weather adversity and find ways to win.

“It’s certainly a mental game. To have confidence, to start believing in plays on offense and defense and believe that things are going to work out is a huge part of this game,” said Gallagher. “Our kids have that now, but they’ve remained humble and understand that the grind is just beginning.”

“You never see anybody on one side of the ball or the other pointing the finger,” said Troxell. “Everybody talks about success being great chemistry. This team has great chemistry. The bonds these kids have built are starting to show.”

The bonds begin to form as soon as freshmen arrive on campus. That requires veteran leadership. For programs that have struggled in recent years, it may take some time to reach the point where upperclassmen are ready to show the ropes to the rookies and get them up to speed right away. That’s what Tomeo is starting to see at Knox.

“We saw this shift probably over two years ago in the offseason. Just seeing the guys’ involvement in lifting, then in spring ball. It was another step forward, another step forward,” said the Prairie Fire coach. “We came into camp, our seniors wrapped their arms around the freshmen, and that helped us grow even more. We keep trying to bring in a tremendous group of high-character freshmen with great work ethic. If we can keep doing that, we’ll be on the right path.”

Players’ Corner

Eric Haverstock 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. Last week, I featured a Grove City player, and the Wolverines went on to snap a 33-game losing streak. So, let’s see if there’s some mojo in the Players’ Corner. This week, we hear from Howard Payne junior H-back Eric Haverstock, whose Yellow Jackets are trying to snap a 15-game losing skid.

I fell in love with football during my junior year of high school. I saw how the little things that you work on in football matter the most, and I realized how that carries over into life. So I fell in love with the idea that I'm learning things about life in a sport that I'm good at.

I still love football because I see how it is making me into the man I need to be in the future.

The Yellow Jackets will try to snap their streak on Saturday at Belhaven.

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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