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Lake Forest's Joey Valdivia leads Division III with 258 rushing yards per game.
Lake Forest athletics photo

By Clyde Hughes

How can you top rushing for 1,535 yards, setting several school records and being named third-team All-American in 2016?

Lake Forest's Joey Valdivia appears to have answered those questions very well. The Foresters tailback was one of the best feel-good stories last year, bouncing back from injuries that nearly ended his collegiate football career to become one of Division III's top rushers.

It appears that 2016 was just Valdivia's warm-up act after rushing for a school-record 295 yards on 36 carries in the season opener against Beloit and 221 more on 27 carries in a 48-46 victory over Carleton last Saturday.

Valdivia said he would rather keep 2016 in the past, regardless of how impressive it was.

"This year is different because we have a different team," Valdivia said. "I try not to think about last season because I do not want to lose focus on our next opponent."

That attitude is not a surprise at all to Lake Forest coach Jim Catanzaro, who has seen his star tailback overcome a hamstring injury and a broken foot that caused him to miss one whole season, only to blossom into his backfield workhorse.

"His maturation and focus on the moment is unique," Catanzaro said. "The amount of time he puts in during his time away from the team during the day is inspiring to a lot of players. He has the ability to change our whole team's momentum with one physical run in the game."

Valdivia praised his offensive line for getting him going. With the help of center Ethan Sheirer, guards Daniel Solano and Jake Burkard, and tackles Andrew Johnson and Tom Steen, Valdivia is now the leading Division III rusher in the country, averaging 258 yards per game, 10 yards per game more than Ike Jones of Wabash, who has only played in one game.

It may be too early to suggest that Valdivia can keep up this pace, but the Division III record for yardage per game was set by Dante Brown of Marietta in 1996 when he averaged 238.5 yards over a 10-game season.

The Division III single-season rushing record is within reach.
Lake Forest Athletics photo

"The O-line has been great," Valdivia said. "They have created some running lanes, which has made my life easier. They have really dominated at the point of attack. We are able to run inside and outside."

The play of quarterback Jagan Cleary has also played a big role, with his ability to keep teams honest with six touchdown passes in two games. Cleary is currently completing 50.9 percent of his passes (28-55) for a 179-yard average with an efficiency rating of 130.7.

"Jagan is playing well considering that our starting wide receivers only had 24 combined catches in their career coming into this year," Catanzaro said. "As their chemistry improves, there is no doubt we will get even better."

Valdivia said that he wants to do his part in helping Cleary when teams start to sell out on the run when the Foresters have the ball.

"(I want to make) sure to keep the quarterback protected, so he can get the ball off to the receivers," Valdivia said. "We have great young wide receivers who are getting better each week. Additionally we can run the same plays from a lot of different formations."

Catanzaro said while the defense has been a work in progress, giving up an average of 36 points per game, he has seen bright spots there as well.

"We are getting better each week," Catanzaro said. "Two things that really stood out are that despite giving up yards, we are also averaging 12 (tackles for loss) a game. We are aggressive, but need to get off the field on third down. Additionally, we had six drives that were extended by penalty. We need to eliminate that from our defense during the bye week."

The Foresters get a bye week now before taking the field again against Lawrence on Sept. 23. Valdivia said he's in no rush, though. He said the goal is to win, regardless the score or the rushing yardage.

"(I want) to take it one game at a time and do whatever it is I have to do to help the team win," he said.

North Central well aware of Illinois Wesleyan

North Central coach Jeff Thorne was quite complimentary of No. 16-ranked Illinois Wesleyan as his No. 5-ranked Cardinals get ready to host the Titans in a huge CCIW matchup with conference title implications. Illinois Wesleyan is now two weeks off from upsetting perennial power Wisconsin-Whitewater and is ready to take on a nemesis in its own conference.

The last time Illinois Wesleyan beat North Central was a 28-22 overtime thriller in 2009. That year, Illinois Wesleyan earned a playoff bid and reached the second round, where it lost to Wisconsin-Whitewater.

"We've had success against Illinois Wesleyan over the past several years and our guys are confident but certainly not overconfident," Thorne said. "They had a huge win two weeks ago and actually a huge win for the conference. You have to take them seriously. We're excited to get back and play them."

It would be unusual to have three teams from the same conference in the playoffs, leaving league play to see if No. 4 Wheaton, No. 5 North Central, or No. 16 Illinois Wesleyan will be left out. With that said, this game will be remembered come November.

"I don't think it's ever too early to talk about playoff implications because in the Division III level, every single week you have to take care of business if you want to talk about playoffs," Thorne said. "I don't think this game is any bigger than any other game we will play from a playoff standpoint, but there is a nice rivalry. This is a big game and we know it's important."

Franklin passing combo near top of NCAA charts

Despite Franklin's 0-2 non-conference record, the perennial HCAC contender appears to be fueled this year by the duo of quarterback Chase Burton and wide receiver Deontez Alexander. Burton's eight touchdown passes this season ranks fifth among all Division III quarterbacks.

Anderson has caught five of those touchdown passes, second among Division III wide receivers. Alexander's 257 receiving yards in two games is also 11th among all other pass catchers in the division.

Burton passed for 329 yards and Alexander caught four for 124 yards in a 43-24 loss to NCAA Division I FCS non-scholarship Butler. Franklin lost its opener against then-ranked Thomas More, 47-37.

"I told our guys after the game that we've faced adversity and two really tough teams to open the year,” said Grizzlies coach Mike Leonard. “That was by design because we wanted our guys to face adversity. We showed some really good things [Saturday] and we feel we're setting ourselves up to do some great things this year."

Another game to watch

Lakeland at Hope, 1:30 p.m.: Since No. 16 Illinois Wesleyan at No. 5 North Central has already been addressed, the next choice is the defending NACC champions taking on a really good Hope squad that extended defending MWC champion Monmouth in the opener before beating Defiance 38-0. It will be a solid test to see if Muskie quarterback Michael Whitley can repeat his stunning passing yardage numbers from his opener two weeks ago when he threw for 473 yards against Carroll.

Player to watch

Kyle Treber, linebacker, Hanover: Treber is the top freshman tackler in Division III football, ranking fifth overall in the country over the first two games with 31 total stops. He had 20 tackles in the Panthers’ season opener against Centre. But Hanover lost both of those games and it won't get any easier as the Panthers travel to Terre Haute, Indiana, to take on defending HCAC champion Rose-Hulman on Saturday.

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Clyde Hughes

Clyde Hughes has been writing sports at various times over the past 24 years, covering everything from high school, college and sporting events. A native of football-crazed Texas, Hughes works in Indiana and has written for numerous newspapers and magazines.
2003-04 columnist: John Regenfuss
1999-2000 columnist: Don Stoner

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