|Isaiah D'Haiti's two second-half scores led the Bombers to victory.
Ithaca athletics photo
By Adam Turer
Sometimes you think you have a really good plan, but circumstances outside of your control force you to adjust. Then, you end up finding yourself in an unexpected, but much better situation. Football coaches can surely relate.
I was supposed to travel back to my alma mater this weekend and planned on writing about young coaches from Maryville and Washington & Lee leading the programs they played for in the not-too-distant past. Instead, Hurricane Florence caused that game to be postponed to Sept. 20. It has since been cancelled, as buses in the area are better used to assist with hurricane relief efforts than to take the Scots to Virginia for a non-conference game. It was one of seven games either cancelled or postponed due to Florence. Two others were moved up to weeknight games.
That left me with an unexpectedly open Saturday, which led me to Crestview Hills, Kentucky, to see a nationally ranked opponent from the WIAC take on Thomas More. I didn’t plan on writing about the Saints and how they are playing this season with their backs against the wall, since I already used this space on the same topic following Thomas More’s Week 1 loss at N.C. Wesleyan. But I was fortunate enough to witness one of the most exciting D-III games I’ve seen in person, a thrilling come-from-behind upset as the Saints knocked off No. 16-ranked UW-Platteville, 35-28.
“I think the hardest part is we got knocked in the mouth real quick. The good part to see is we didn’t get knocked down,” said head coach Trevor Stellman. “We staggered around and hung in there. The fact that our guys bounced back and we started going on the attack, that was a key for us.”
The Saints fell behind 21-0 in the first quarter and looked overmatched. They chipped away at the deficit and two big interception returns by Steve Everson, including a pick-six in the second quarter, swung the momentum toward the home team. A goal-line stand in the closing minute sealed the win and earned Stellman one of the program’s biggest wins in just his third game as head coach.
From the outside, such a victory can look like a signature or benchmark win for a young coach looking to make his mark on a program. From the inside, it was just a matter of a team playing up to its capabilities and taking care of that week’s business. The Saints weren’t the only team to do that yesterday.
Ithaca nearly upset No. 4-ranked Brockport in Week 2, falling 13-7. The Bombers fell behind 13-0 on the road at Alfred in Week 3. Yunevich Stadium is not an easy place to make a comeback as the visiting team, but the Bombers rallied to score the game’s final 21 points.
Neither the narrow loss to a 2017 national semifinalist or the impressive comeback win on the road against an old Empire 8 rival will impact how the Bombers come out and play in Week 4 at St. John Fisher.
“I don’t think this program is built that way,” said Ithaca coach Dan Swanstrom. “We felt disappointed and felt that we could play better [against Brockport]. We really try to stay as true to each individual week as possible. What happened in the past, we move on on Sundays no matter what we do on Saturday. We really try to play the one week at a time.”
If the Saints had been able to complete their comeback in the opener against N.C. Wesleyan, they would almost certainly find themselves ranked in the Top 25 poll released later today. The Bombers, also 2-1, will likely crack the Top 25 today. While the focus remains on each week’s upcoming opponent, these young coaches understand that in order to get their program where they want it to be, they need to play tough non-conference opponents and embrace the opportunity to earn some national shine.
“There’s 250 teams that play Division III football. Any time you get that type of recognition, it’s exciting,” said Swanstrom. “That’s where we want to be. If you’re going to be consistently good, you’ve got to be accustomed to playing with expectations.”
The Bombers won their final five games in Swanstrom’s debut season last year to finish 8-3. Liberty League rival Union went from 0-10 to 3-7 in Jeff Behrman’s first season, then improved to 7-4 in his second year last season. This year, the Dutchmen are off to a 3-0 start, shutting down No. 25-ranked Springfield’s vaunted rushing attack yesterday.
Illinois Wesleyan served notice that last year’s playoff season was the new standard, defeating No. 12-ranked Wheaton, 24-14. That has a ripple effect in the WIAC, making UW-La Crosse’s Week 2 win over the Titans more impressive. That also gives IWU two consecutive victories over Wheaton.
That is the goal these program share: make what appears to be one season’s most impressive victory the standard, not an outlier. These seemingly marquee wins will propel these teams, but not beyond their preparation for Week 4.
“Our guys battled,” said Stellman. “The sky’s the limit right now for us.”
Thank you for reading
I want to again thank all of the coaches, families, and fans who have reached out to me after reading this week’s Players’ Corner section of the Around the Nation column. If you have not yet had a chance to, please read it. You can scroll past the football part, I won’t mind.
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 email@example.com.