|Wesley Schools is averaging 138 yards per game and has scored five touchdowns for Grove City in its 2-1 start.
Grove City athletics photo
By Adam Turer
Heading into Week 3, the reigning champs maintained the nation’s longest winning streak, at 16 games.
Did you know who had the nation’s second-longest streak of success?
A program less than two years removed from 33-game losing skid.
Grove City went from 33 straight defeats, to winning nine games in a row. That hot streak was snapped by Saturday’s loss to Case Western Reserve, but the momentum of the program has hardly slowed.
September 23, 2017 was a cathartic night for the Wolverines program. That win over St. Vincent was the first college victory for most of the players on the roster. Few could have predicted that two years later, Grove City would be second only to a powerhouse program like Mary Hardin-Baylor in any statistical team category.
“I remember talking to you late that night from our field house,” said Wolverines coach Andrew DiDonato. “It’s pretty remarkable to see where we’re at now.”
Grove City’s turnabout, and Earlham’s suspension of football, left two programs at the wrong end of an ignominious streak. Not for long.
On the Friday night of Week 2, William Paterson snapped a 27-game losing skid. Less than 24 hours later, Crown ended its 24-game slide. These coaches wish they didn’t share this particular common bond, but their messages resonate in a similar way.
“You have to learn how to win. That’s a big part of it. Once you do it, you figure it out,” said Storm coach John Auer. “We had a good week of practice. You can’t just win on Saturday, you have to win Monday through Friday. Just getting guys in that mindset that working hard and pushing each other in practice will lead to wins on Saturdays.”
All three coaches approached their respective program’s struggles with a similar outlook, but each came from a different perspective. Auer has been the head coach at Crown for all 17 years of the program’s D-III existence. He has seen his share of ups and downs.
“I don’t know many coaches that aren’t competitors. I want to make sure that while I’m here, it’s a winning situation and a good situation,” said Auer. “A lot of kids and coaches walk away from a tough situation. I want to stay here and battle and make it better.”
DiDonato took the reins of his alma mater for his first collegiate head coaching job. That meant just a little bit more.
“We had a specific vision of where we wanted to go as a program. We outlined for our guys exactly the process it was going to take to meet that vision,” he said. “We got everyone to speak the same language of Vision, Process, Love. When you have that identity and know who you are, our guys know exactly what they have to do to turn that vision into reality. That starts to breed confidence.”
Dustin Johnson’s first collegiate head coaching job came as an outsider. The former Salisbury star had to get his William Paterson players to buy into his philosophy and plan.
“Our kids continued to work hard and believe the message that if we continue to trust one another on the field, in the weight room, in the classroom, good things are going to happen eventually,” said Johnson. “It’s something that our kids have been working for.”
Like DiDonato, his first season did not yield any wins. It would be easy to look back on the bad bounces, the plays that just didn’t go their way. As coaches of struggling programs, they can’t just look ahead to the next snap and the next play. In order to break out of the funk, they have to show their players just how close they are. They have to build confidence where there may not be much inherent in the players, at least compared to more successful programs.
“We were so close last year and several times we let the game slip away,” said Johnson. “We kept talking to guys about getting better, believing the process.”
“We’ve gone through a couple years where we’ve been close in a couple games, our kids have worked hard. When they don’t get that immediate gratification and reward, it’s easy to quit and walk away,” said Auer. “A lot of them have stuck with it and kept lifting and kept working. The best thing was to see the joy on their faces, not only winning but playing really well on both sides of the ball.”
After finally breaking through to the win column, these programs suddenly face a new dilemma: how do they stay there? Do they embrace the end of a torturous flurry of disappointing Saturdays, or do they play it cool and act like they’ve been there before when, in reality, most of the players haven’t?
“We do talk about it, because our vision each week is to continue winning,” said DiDonato. “After a couple winless seasons, we told guys they need to have a destination where they want to go, but you need to have a process to get there.”
“We just want to keep the momentum going and keep the guys working hard at practice. You don’t want to go backwards. We want to keep getting a little bit better every day. Trust the plan,” said Johnson. “For us, that’s going to class, getting assignments done, being accountable for actions, keep guys coming back, get our program a little bit older.”
That’s another challenge that struggling programs face. Retention is challenging for any D-III program, from Mary Hardin-Baylor on down. No scholarships, rising tuition costs, and academic rigors make it difficult for all D-III teams to sustain success. I’m not sure there is any program in the country that boasts more seniors than first years. It takes a special kind of young man to put in the extra work to come back to a struggling program and try to be part of the group that turns its fortunes around.
“We had some kids who had to leave the team to go work and then came back,” said Auer. “It would have been easy for them to stay away when they saw a tough situation. For them to want to come back and help us turn our program around is huge.”
Each coach noticed a difference between the white lines on Saturdays. Every team faces adversity at some point in the season. The best programs are unfazed by it. Programs with multi-season losing streaks have to learn how to reach that point.
“In a game, when adversity hits, our guys don’t panic. In the win streak we were on, we’ve won a lot of close games. We had a history of losing every close game. A big part of that is the mental side,” said DiDonato.
“In the past, we’ve had close games then something happens and it’s like here it goes again,” said Auer.
“Being down 17-0 wasn’t very exciting. We finally got one in the end zone and felt the momentum of our team pick up. Our guys’ spirits lifted. It was super exciting to enjoy the ride from that point. The guys started to believe,” said Johnson. “There was no panic. Nobody pointing fingers. For so long, it’s been ‘when is the bottom going to fall out?’ Now it’s them getting the validation of we do belong here and we can compete.”
Every little victory adds up. The Pioneers trailed 17-0 on the road at FDU-Florham. A two-minute drill before halftime energized the offense. Even though it led to a missed field goal, it gave both sides of the ball confidence heading into the locker room.
For Crown, it was Sebastian Alvarado’s pick six in the third quarter to give the Storm the lead that shifted momentum. It’s amazing how one play can change the trajectory of an entire program.
“That took pressure off of our offense. It’s getting over that hump, having somebody step up and make the play that changes the tide of momentum and gives us a winning mentality,” said Auer. “That was the play that gave our guys confidence that this game wasn’t going to be like all the others.”
Even though the Storm fell in Week 3, they showed more fight than Crown teams of recent vintage. St. Scholastica, a program with playoff pedigree, jumped out to a 28-5 lead. But the Storm rallied back before falling 35-32. Even in defeat, you could sense a different vibe on the field during the game. That comes from little things, like defensive backs asking their coaches how they can help the offense, and veteran players asking to join special teams units.
The vision of success extends off the field for these programs, too.
“Our seniors have done a great job of supporting the freshmen coming in. Our upperclassmen have done a phenomenal job of mentoring our young student-athletes and it’s starting to show on the field,” said Johnson. “Whether that’s helping with film, helping with plays, or helping them get to their first day of class.”
For Grove City, the goal was always bigger than just one win. To go from 33 straight losses to the nation’s second longest winning streak was not a surprise or an accident. It was part of the plan all along.
“From Day One, it has been to glorify God and compete for PAC championships. When we were 0-20 in our first meeting, we told them that it’s a lofty vision, but we’re going to go compete for championships” said DiDonato. “We told our guys to focus on the vision, not the circumstance. Our vision has always been lofty, but the key has always been to talk about the process each day.”
One win, one moment of joyous celebration, can make a lasting impact.
“It was just relief for seeing our kids feel that way,” said Auer. “It’s been a long time.”
The next step is to find ways to replicate that success, not just on game days, but in practices and in offseason workouts, and in film sessions, and in the classroom. That comprehensive turnaround is not so far off.
“A lot of the alumni have been waiting to see what this new staff is going to look like. I’ve gotten more emails from alumni this week,” said Johnson. “This is what they were waiting to see. We want this team to bring the pride back to the Pioneers.”
With Grove City’s loss, two teams are now tied behind the Cru for the second-longest winning streak in the nation.
Of course, thanks to the D-III playoff system, only the reigning national champion can carry both a winning streak and playoff streak into the following season.
Who are the teams that missed the 2018 playoffs but haven’t missed a beat?
One just notched one of the biggest wins in program history to extend its streak to seven games. Redlands appeared in the playoffs as recently as 2016, and hasn’t lost more than two games in a season since 2015.
The other streaking contender is a bit more of a surprise. It wasn’t too long ago that this team was a national power, conference dominator, and Stagg Bowl contender.
But it’s been a while since Bridgewater has strung together this kind of success. The Eagles have won seven games in a row. Last year, the Eagles posted their first winning season since 2014. That came after a frustrating 2-4 start. But Bridgewater closed out 2018 with four straight wins and have opened 2019 by winning three in a row.
The formula is clear. The Eagles have allowed just 16.7 points per game during the winning streak. The Bulldogs defense has been even better, yielding just 16 points per game during its equally successful run.
Bridgewater hosts upstart ODAC newcomer Southern Virginia, while the Bulldogs host Pomona-Pitzer in the SCIAC opener.
Have a weekend, coach
I’m not sure anybody had a better weekend than Cleive Adams. The Ferrum alum was inducted into the college’s Hall of Fame. Then, he led his Averett Cougars to a resounding 35-12 victory over the Panthers.
Adams’s alma mater was the third straight ODAC opponent Averett faced this season. The Cougars opened with a win over Hampden-Sydney and lost by just three points to defending ODAC champion Randolph-Macon, after leading the Yellow Jackets 27-9 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Cougars appear to be the cream of the USAC crop this season. The Ferrum Hall of Famer is seeking his first playoff appearance since the 2006 season, when he was the defensive line and special teams coach at Washington and Lee.