|Chaiten Tomlin and the Lions avoided their trap game and now have their sights fully set on next week's big game.
Mount St. Joseph athletics photo
By Adam Turer
In July, fans of certain programs quickly circle one Saturday on the calendar.
Players can pretend that they don’t, and maybe some actually stay focused on one week at a time. Their coaches are constantly reminding them that if they don’t take care of business today, tomorrow or next week won’t carry the same weight.
For those teams that have been at or near the top of their conference often competing with one, maybe two, other programs, the week before the big game takes a concerted effort when it comes to maintaining focus.
The game before the big game, especially when it comes against a motivated opponent trying to pull off the upset, is the prototypical trap game.
“We circle the first game of the year. We go one game at a time. I know that’s a coaching cliche but we don’t treat any game differently. We can’t,” said St. John’s coach Gary Fasching. “In this business I’ve learned over 36 years that you’ve got to take each game as it comes and you can’t look ahead.”
Preaching focus in addition to teaching the usual daily and weekly game planning preparation is a challenge for any coach, especially for a young coach whose team will play its biggest game of his brief tenure the following week.
“I think that’s been the biggest challenge for me and I’m sure the guys are tired of me saying it, but it’s step by step, play by play,” said Mount St. Joseph second-year head coach Tyler Hopperton. “There’s no other way to look at it because of games like this where we are the better team and we should be blowing this team out, but if we’re not focusing play to play, it doesn’t take long for it to slip.”
The Lions jumped out to a 35-7 lead at home against Manchester yesterday. But the Spartans rallied and it was a one-score game entering the fourth quarter. Mount St. Joe hosts perennial HCAC power Franklin in Week 7.
“We let our guard down for two quarters and all of a sudden they’re back in the game,” said senior center Cole Tepe. “I thought it was a classic trap game with Franklin next week.”
The Johnnies had to travel to unbeaten Bethel the week before hosting St. Thomas in the Tommie-Johnnie rivalry classic. Preparing for the Royals was the sole focus, and there was no opportunity to look ahead.
“Bethel was a great test for us yesterday. I have great respect for their head coach Steve Johnson and their program,” said Fasching. “We had to battle yesterday and I was really proud of the way our kids grinded it out.”
St. John’s had outscored its first four opponents by a combined 183-13, pitching three shutouts. That pace is not going to continue through the rest of the MIAC slate. Bethel scored twice in a row to cut the Johnnies’ lead to 20-16 with 9:48 to play in the game.
“We’ve been able to get ahead pretty substantially in other games. I knew in this game that wasn’t going to be the case,” said Fasching. “I knew we were going to get their best shot and their kids were going to fight until the end. We need games like that because we’re going to face teams like that this week and down the road.”
The Johnnies pulled out a 34-16 victory. The Lions won their game, 49-27. Both were within one score in the middle of the fourth quarter before the better team pulled away. No matter who you’re lined up against, you have to be the team to make the most game-changing plays.
“We talk about making plays when the game is on the line. There’s always five or six plays that determine the game,” said Fasching. “Fortunately, we made one after they got the momentum. I know our team will play hard all the time and fight and I was very proud of their effort yesterday. You can’t worry about the color of the opponent’s uniform; you have prepare to play your best.”
The players won’t admit, at least not on the record, that they were looking ahead to next Saturday’s big game. That is a testament to the coaching they receive and how much they have learned as college football players. Getting over the hump to reclaim a conference championship is the goal, but reaching that goal takes more than just one victory. But it also almost certainly takes the one victory that is at stake on October 13 for both of these programs.
“We get up at the same time every morning, we practice the same whether it’s Earlham week or Franklin. We do everything the same. I think that’s what shows Hopp as a true coach and leader because he’s showing us that it doesn’t matter who you’re playing, whether it’s David or Goliath. You’ve got to come out and prepare for whoever you’re playing against,” said Lions quarterback Chaiten Tomlin.
“As soon as that clock up there hit zero, I’m thinking of Franklin.”
A legacy lives on
The world--not the St. John’s world, not the Division III world, not the college football world--the world lost a legend on Sunday.
Pat Coleman wrote a beautiful appreciation of John Gagliardi’s life and legacy. Other tributes have flooded the internet this morning. No amount of words can adequately capture the enormity of the impact Gagliardi has had and continues to have on so many people.
“It’s a very sad day here in Collegeville for a lot of people, for myself, and for our football program and all the men who played for John,” said Fasching.
The current Johnnies head coach was able to visit with his predecessor a few weeks ago. He reports that Gagliardi maintained his sharpness to the very end, breaking down the schemes that MIAC opponents are running this season.
“He’s an incredible man. His impact on the game of football and on the lives of the thousands of people he coached, it’s extraordinary,” said Fasching. “I can’t even put into words what he has meant to me and to the game of college football.”
On Sept. 22, Gagliardi became the first inductee into Saint John’s University’s J-Club Hall of Honor. The evening was a celebration and a reflection and an opportunity for current Johnnies players to spend time with the face of the program. One current player told Fasching that shaking Gagliardi’s hand was the highlight of his night.
“Even though our current players didn’t play for him, they understand what he continues to mean to our program,” said Fasching. “He’s one of the giants of the game. We’re certainly going to miss him.”
Last season, I had the privilege of connecting with Gagliardi through Boz Bostrom, a former Johnnies player, current professor, and author of Gagliardi’s biography.
Reading the book, I learned more about Gagliardi’s philosophies and his relationship with his players and students and the entire Collegeville community. It was inspiring and passionate and humorous, much like the subject himself.
The highest praise I can give the book is that my eighth grader who is notoriously reading-averse calls it one of his favorite books and still picks it up from time to time. It is a gift that we will treasure, much like Gagliardi was a gift to this world who so many of us will treasure for the rest of our lives.
We all want to leave a lasting legacy. As Bostrom aptly titled his book, and as today’s remembrances once again prove, Gagliardi’s is A Legacy Unrivaled.
Here's what to watch for on D3football.com this week.
Later today-- New Top 25 poll released
Monday--Around the Nation podcast with Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan and Team of the Week weekly honors.
Thursday--Around the Nation column.
Friday--Quick Hits, and another edition of the Around the Nation podcast.
Saturday--You know what Saturdays are for.
We've got great content coming at you all week, every week. Follow along and get to know D-III football beyond just your favorite team, and don’t forget to use the #d3fb hashtag on social media.
If you have ideas for an upcoming column or just want to talk some D-III football, get at me at @adamturer on Twitter or firstname.lastname@example.org.