|Jake Pinkston is one of only two non-seniors starting on the Yellow Jackets defense that racked up 31 sacks this year.
Randolph-Macon athletics photo
It's been a special season for the Randolph-Macon football team. The Yellow Jackets have already tied a program record with nine wins, and their Old Dominion Athletic Conference title is the program's first since 2008. Up until this season, that year also marked the Yellow Jackets' last NCAA tournament appearance.
So when did head coach Pedro Arruza know his group of players might be capable of putting together a banner season? As it turns out, it was back in training camp, well before Randolph-Macon suited up against any other teams.
"I knew we had a special group of kids coming back this year," Arruza said. "This group of seniors has been awesome."
Whether it was keeping the locker room spotless or simply pushing other players harder in practice, Arruza said the senior class, in particular, left an indelible mark.
"They're a special group of kids," Arruza said. "They've been a great, great group to work with."
The Yellow Jackets have consistently posted winning seasons since Arruza took over in 2004. From 2007 to 2013, Randolph-Macon won at least six games in each season, but the previous two seasons were considered disappointments.
In 2014, Randolph-Macon finished 5-5, which was followed up by a 4-6 mark last season. It was the team's first losing season since 2006. Despite the struggles in the win-loss column, Arruza continued to see the potential.
"The last two years were really more of an anomaly, more of an exception, rather than the rule," Arruza said, "and a lot of factors played into that."
One of those factors, at least in 2015, was injuries. While every college football team is forced to deal with injuries to key players at some point, what Randolph-Macon faced last season was extreme. Sophomore Tre Frederick, the team's leading rusher this season with 1,345 yards and 11 touchdowns, had his freshman year cut short after just four games. Injuries and inconsistency forced the Yellow Jackets to play four different quarterbacks over the course of the season.
The lack of continuity squashed any chance for sustained success, although the team did close out the 2015 season with three consecutive wins against Shenandoah, Bridgewater and Hampden-Sydney, perhaps foreshadowing the season to come in 2016.
Frederick rushed for 83 yards and scored three total touchdowns, and freshman quarterback Burke Estes -- one of only two quarterbacks, along with sophomore Joseph Vairo, to see notable playing time this season -- passed for 329 yards and two touchdowns in Randolph-Macon's 48-23 win over Hampden-Sydney to close out the regular season this past Saturday. The team's lone loss came in a 27-20 road defeat in mid-October against Emory and Henry. Since that loss, the Yellow Jackets have strung together four straight wins by an average margin of nearly 19 points.
The injury bug bit the team again this season, but mostly limited its reach to offense. At one point this season, the Yellow Jackets were forced to start four different players at center in four consecutive weeks. But as the regular season winded down, the offensive line got back to full strength. Senior left guard Nick Powell and senior center Jay Jausler, who both missed time earlier this season, are back in the mix, alongside senior left tackle Hunter Clemons, sophomore right guard Greg Castle and senior right tackle Chris Moses.
Where the injury bug avoided, however, is the Yellow Jackets defense, which features a whopping nine senior starters. That total includes standout playmakers like linebacker and leading tackler Michael Farry (63 tackles), defensive end and team sack leader Cole Burdette (9.5 sacks, 18 tackles for loss), and safety and team interception leader Marcus Mitchell (five INTs).
Arruza said the program doesn't focus on bringing in transfers, and in fact has no transfers among its current senior class. The fourth-year players on the roster have all been groomed in-house.
"You look at the difference physically in them between where they were as freshmen and where they are now, and that's the part that I'm most proud of," Arruza said. "We've developed these guys over the last four years, and they've developed themselves because of their character and their work ethic."
Randolph-Macon has shut out three opponents this season, including conference opponents Bridgewater and Catholic. The Yellow Jackets' 11.5 points allowed per game ranks sixth nationally among all Division III teams, while their 281.6 yards allowed per game ranks 21st. Defense has been the name of the game for Randolph-Macon this season, but it will face a serious test this Saturday in the playoffs against Johns Hopkins.
Macon and Hopkins have a long history of playing each other. The two teams split their four meetings between 2007 and 2010, all in games decided by nine points or less. After a one-year hiatus in 2011, the two programs resumed their annual matchup, but the results in the four seasons since have been lopsided in favor of the Blue Jays.
"We're familiar with them," Arruza said. "I've said to our guys many times that that's a program that, hey, look at how much they've risen. We need to get to that level."
This season could become one of the first major steps in such a rise. Unlike in 2008, when Randolph-Macon finished 6-4 overall, earned a playoff berth via tiebreakers and absorbed a thanks-for-coming 56-0 pummeling from eventual national champion Mount Union, this year's team proved itself repeatedly as the ODAC's best team.
The formula was simple -- strong leadership, abundant maturity and elite defensive play, with reliable offensive production sprinkled throughout. Everything else just fell into place.
"There's so much that's wrong with college athletics, and I look at the kids in our program and just say, 'Man, it's refreshing to see it,'" Arruza said. "I feel like the way these guys go about it says a lot about what's right with college athletics."
Playoff reaction: Three Mid-Atlantic teams in field of 32
There were few surprises in the Centennial, ODAC or USA South in the final week of the regular season.
Johns Hopkins had already wrapped up its sixth consecutive NCAA tournament berth, while Randolph-Macon and Huntingdon both needed wins this past Saturday to make it official. Spoiler alert: The Yellow Jackets and Hawks both won.
The only real question was whether or not Muhlenberg would earn one of the coveted few Pool C at-large bids. The answer, as it turns out, was no, but that doesn't mean the Mules won't have a postseason game (see below).
Meanwhile, Huntingdon will face a considerable travel distance for its first-round game, while Johns Hopkins and Randolph-Macon will prepare to add another chapter to a rich rivalry. Here's a quick look at each game:
Mary Hardin-Baylor bracket
No. 25 Huntingdon (9-1) at No. 13 Wheaton (9-1), 1 p.m., Saturday: The Hawks piled up a staggering 700 yards of total offense in their 42-14 win over Averett in the regular-season finale, but they now face a 700-plus-mile journey from Montgomery, Ala., to Wheaton, Ill., to meet Wheaton.
Wheaton finished second to North Central in the CCIW this season, but had previously won the conference crown in 2014 and 2015. The Thunder is a postseason-tested team, with first-round NCAA wins in each of the last two seasons.
Huntingdon is making its second straight NCAA appearance and third overall in program history. Last season, the Hawks topped Hendrix in the first round before falling to perennial powerhouse Mary Hardin-Baylor. Huntingdon and Wheaton have never met before.
Senior quarterback Luke Bailey (2,751 passing yards, 636 rushing yards, 42 total TDs) has been brilliant this season. He guides a Huntingdon offense that also features senior running back John Iwaniec, senior wide receiver Nick Haas and sophomore wide receiver Otis Porter. Defensively, the Hawks have only allowed 15.3 points per game over a six-game winning streak to close out the regular season.
Randolph-Macon (9-1) at No. 10 Johns Hopkins (10-0), 12 p.m., Saturday: There won't be a lot of mystery in this one. Macon and Hopkins have met 39 times all-time, with the Blue Jays leading the series 21-16-1, though 27 of those games were played before 1969.
In the 12 meetings since 2002, Johns Hopkins has won nine of them, including the last four overall. The Blue Jays have become a staple in the NCAA tournament, having qualified in each of the last six seasons.
Randolph-Macon, on the other hand, is making its first appearance in the tournament since 2008, and just its third appearance in program history. Senior quarterback Jonathan Germano (2,820 passing yards, 383 rushing yards, 31 total TDs), junior running back Ryan Cary and senior wide receiver Bradley Munday highlight a balanced offensive attack, while senior linebacker Jack Campbell anchors a stout defense.
These two teams last met in the 2015 season opener, which resulted in a 52-17 win for Johns Hopkins. Randolph-Macon will be looking to reverse recent history this Saturday.
Centennial-MAC slate: Muhlenberg to host Delaware Valley
Muhlenberg was left on the outside looking in for the NCAA tournament, but the Mules' second-place finish in the CC ensured an appearance in a postseason bowl game against the MAC runner-up.
The Centennial-MAC Bowl Series began last season and includes the top two teams from each conference that aren't selected to participate in the 32-team NCAA field. In the other matchup, Franklin and Marshall (7-3) will travel to face Albright (7-3). Both games are scheduled for noon kickoffs on Saturday.
Muhlenberg (9-1) and Delaware Valley (8-2) have not met since 2012, when Delaware Valley rallied for a 24-21 win in the ECAC South Atlantic Bowl. Both teams played in Centennial-MAC bowl games last season.
Nick Savant rushed for 168 yards and a touchdown, Nick Lamb caught five passes for 134 yards and a touchdown, and Frankie Feaster tallied a pair of sacks in Muhlenberg's 31-12 win over Moravian. ... Elijah Chenier rushed for 243 yards and three touchdowns, and Nick Myers passed for 232 yards and three touchdowns as Maryville ran past Greensboro 70-14. ... Marshall Hollerith rushed for 138 yards and a touchdown, Charlie Nelson rushed for 120 yards and two TDs, and Evan Hinkle added 94 yards and two scores on the ground in Washington and Lee's 59-42 shootout win against Shenandoah. Hayden Bauserman passed for 352 yards and four touchdowns in the loss. ... Nathan Gardner passed for 282 yards and connected with Malik Adams on three touchdown passes as N.C. Wesleyan topped Ferrum 27-13. ... Tanner Erisman rushed for 96 yards and accounted for three total touchdowns, including the go-ahead three-yard score to K.J. Petty late in the fourth quarter, as Franklin and Marshall defeated Gettysburg 28-21. ... Sam Wagner and Isaiah Rodgers rushed for touchdowns, and Dominic Dunnaville tossed two TD passes to A.J. Hampton in Emory and Henry's 34-7 victory over Guilford. ... E'Montie Dears rushed for 143 yards and a touchdown, and Xavier Adams accounted for four total touchdowns as Methodist defeated LaGrange 43-26. Methodist will make up its postponed home game against Averett (Hurricane Matthew) at 1 p.m. on Saturday. ... Nick Crusco passed for 306 yards and four touchdowns as Susquehanna topped Juniata 63-34 for its third straight win to end the season. ... Jay Scroggins passed for 272 yards and four touchdowns, including two to Keith Jennings, and Muhammad Khan finished with 2.5 of Bridgewater's six sacks in a 50-13 win over Catholic. ... Corey Kelley rushed for a pair of touchdowns, Jonathan Gerhartz returned a kickoff 80 yards for a score, and Ursinus' defense piled up nine sacks in a 37-14 win over Dickinson.
Top 25: Huntingdon climbs into rankings
USA South champion Huntingdon claimed the No. 25 spot in the final D3football.com Top 25 poll of the regular season.
Centennial Conference champion Johns Hopkins came in at No. 10, following seven straight weeks at No. 9. Muhlenberg and ODAC champion Randolph-Macon both continued to receive votes.
Thank you/contact me
If you've read the Around the Mid-Atlantic column at any point this season, emailed me with feedback or just simply to chat about D-III football, thank you. Enjoy the playoffs and keep in touch! Drop me a line at email@example.com or send me a tweet (@Andrew_Lovell).