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Michael Alada had to wait a long time to get his shot in the Tommies lineup, but he has arrived.
Photo by Michael Brown, University of St. Thomas

The adage “make the most of your opportunity” is used frequently. But it really hits home at St. Thomas.

Up and down the lineup, players on the Tommies’ roster have prepared for their moment and seized the chance to excel when their time comes.

Senior defensive back Michael Alada is a prime example. Playing behind first team All-MIAC selections Mozus Ikuenobe and Jordan Young, he waited for his opportunity and is now one of the biggest threats on St. Thomas’ dangerous defense.

“I really believe, at the very core of it, that’s the strength of our program – it’s a very competitive and selfless one at the same time,” UST head coach Glenn Caruso said. “Sometimes you might have to wait before you get your opportunity. What’s really important is when that opportunity comes … you’ve got to be prepared mentality to make the most of it. That takes a whole lot of mental toughness, and a lot of kids would probably shy away from that. But we’re very fortunate to have a lot of kids that are willing to put the team first and work for their opportunity.”

In his first season as a starter, Alada has nine interceptions – the most in Division III. And he’s returned two of those interceptions for touchdowns.

But it took patience for Alada to get to this point.

Recognizing that the position group was very deep when he arrived, the senior defensive back said he spent his first couple of seasons learning the culture of the program, studying the playbook and working in the weight room.

“I was mainly just happy to be on the team, whether I was playing or not,” Alada recalled.

While watching from the sidelines, he witnessed how competitive the MIAC was and took a cue from Ikuenobe and Young on being coachable. Now he’s translating that preparation into production on the field.

“When the ball is the in air, I want it. So I’m going do everything in my power to get the ball,” he said.

“This year, the focal point of our corners is to really work on our press coverage,” Alada continued. “I take pride in my press coverage and being able to recognize routes fast to get into position when the ball is in the air.”

“As tight to the line of scrimmage as he’ll often play, he does a fantastic job staying on top of the routes, which gives him the line of sight and the confidence to be able to go up and make a play when the ball is in the air,” Caruso added.

Once Alada gets his hands on the ball, something that’s occurred frequently this year, his mentality shifts and he conjures memories of playing wide receiver in high school.

“Whenever we get turnovers, the mindset of the defense turns up to a new level and everybody’s looking for someone to block,” Alada said. “I use those receiver skills – that vision – to figure out where to go.”

Alada has scored two of St. Thomas’ four defensive touchdowns this season. During Caruso’s nine-year tenure as head coach, the Tommies are 24-0 when scoring on defense.

“Anytime you can score in different manners, I think that helps make you well rounded and dynamic,” Caruso said.

With nine picks on the season, Alada is one shy of the program’s season record set by Neal Guggemos.

“Since I’m so close, it’s definitely a motivating factor,” the corner back admitted, adding his was just recently informed he was approaching the mark.

Individual records aside, the St. Thomas defense has made things difficult for opposing offenses. The Tommies recorded 15 tackles for a loss and generated a takeaway in a 73-7 win over St. Olaf to cap a 10-0 regular season.

The defense, which allows an average of 12 points per game, has allowed a mere two touchdowns in the last 14 quarters.

“Defensively, we’re playing as good as I’ve ever seen us play,” Caruso said. “And that’s fun as a coach.”

He said the two overwhelming qualities the group has is cohesion and an ability to run well.

“Whether you’re trying to stop the run, or rush the passer or cover the vertical balls, it always helps to be an athletic team that can run,” Caruso said. “Sometimes when you get those types teams, what suffers is the fact that you don’t always play well together, or fit well together.”

After finishing runner-up in the Stagg Bowl last season, Alada and his teammates – many of which are in new starting roles – are motivated to return to Salem and get another opportunity at the championship.

“I think the team feels great about our potential. We’ve been playing really well. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been pretty dominant,” Alada said. “Everybody knows what it takes. Everybody is inspired. Everybody wants to play even better than they did at the beginning of the season.

“I think we’re ready to go.”

Caruso said the team is full of players like Alada, focused on making the most of this opportunity in front of them.

“Those story lines are all over. They’re at wide receiver. They’re at tight end. They’re at offensive line. They’re at linebacker. They’re at kicker,” the coach said. “It’s a bunch of guys, who have worked really hard for a really long time, who had to fill some ridiculously large shoes.”

Playoff field

The West Region will be represented by nine teams in the 2016 playoff field.

In addition to automatic bids secured by Coe, St. Thomas, Linfield, Redlands, Northwestern (Minn.) and UW-Whitewater, three teams received at-large bids into the postseason field.

St. John’s, UW-Platteville and UW-Oshkosh received Pool C bids.

Redlands will travel to take on Mary-Hardin Baylor while Linfield will travel to play Hardin-Simmons. The winners of those matchups will meet in the second round.

Northwestern (Minn.) plays at St. Thomas in the first round, while Coe hosts Monmouth. The winners of those contests will square off in the second round.

In that same region of the bracket, UW-Platteville will play at St. John’s while UW-Oshkosh hosts Washington University (Mo.). Those winners will meet in a second round game.

UW-Whitewater will host Lakeland in the first round with the winner advancing to play either Wittenberg or Thomas More.

Number of the week

4 – as in the number of receiving touchdowns hauled in by Pacific’s Kobe Williams and Chapman’s Ethan Weinstein.

Williams caught 11 passes for 157 yards and was on the receiving end of all four of Campbell Summerfield’s touchdown passes. The fourth touchdown came with 31 seconds remaining and lifted the Boxers to a 39-35 win over Puget Sound.

Not to be outdone, Weinstein caught 10 passes for 288 yards as Chapman racked up 642 yards of total offense. Ricky Bautista finished with 432 passing yards and six TD strikes as the Panthers beat Occidental, 61-37.

The rest of the West

UW-Platteville’s Wyatt Thompson ran for 316 yards and four touchdowns on 30 carries in a 63-45 victory UW-La Crosse. … In its third season since reinstating football, George Fox clinched a winning record by topping Willamette, 21-7. Grant Schroeder eclipsed 100 yards rushing and passing and had a hand in all three of the Bruins’ touchdowns. … St. John’s got 137 rushing yards and a touchdown from Dusty Krueger as the Johnnies took down Concordia-Moorhead, 31-7. … Coe completed its undefeated regular season with a 47-29 win at Simpson. Trevor Heitland racked up 238 rushing yards and three touchdowns in the win. … Minnesota-Morris secured its first winning season since 2012 by defeating Maranatha Baptist in a non-conference affair, 38-13. Donnie Mavencamp threw for 229 yards and a touchdown and added two more scores on the ground. … Redland’s Christian Guzman made the most of his four catches, gaining 220 yards and two touchdowns. The Bulldogs defeated Cal Lutheran, 34-30, to finish the SCIAC season unbeaten. … Peyton Imhoff intercepted two passes during Wartburg’s 42-14 win over Buena Vista, returning one 32 yards for a touchdown. … Cam Maly scored two of his three touchdowns in the second half to help UW-Whitewater rally past UW-Stout, 34-16. Maly finished with 165 yards and 36 carries to help the Warhawks overcome a 16-10 halftime deficit and finish the regular season undefeated. … Zach Kuzens caught five passes for 137 yards and Reed Peterson added a pair of touchdown receptions to propel Linfield past Pacific Lutheran 27-10 for a perfect 7-0 Northwest Conference record. … Bethel’s defense registered five sacks and got two interceptions by Cale Ferrin as the Royals beat Hamline, 17-14. … Dallas Parent rushed for 173 yards and a score while Robert Vernandez chipped in 108 rushing yards in La Verne’s 41-14 win at Whittier. … UW-Oshkosh defeated UW-Eau Claire, 48-13, as Dylan Hecker gained 133 yards and three touchdowns on just 12 carries. … Riley Gray ran for 162 yards and two touchdowns and passed for 166 yards and three touchdowns to power Central past Luther, 37-23. … After trailing 10-0 after one quarter, UW-River Falls scored 34 straight points on its way to beating UW-Stevens Point, 34-16. Falcon quarterback Travon Hearns threw two touchdown passes and ran for a score while Robbie Flom added a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown. … Whitworth generated 539 yards of total offense in a 53-20 win at Lewis and Clark. Ian Kolste threw for 350 yards and four touchdowns. … Luke Martinez amassed 160 rushing yards and a touchdown to help Gustavus Adolphus defeat Carleton, 38-21. … Claremont-Mudd-Scripps raced out to a 17-point lead before holding off Pomona-Pitzer, 23-21. The loss dropped the Sagehens to 6-3, but the team still enjoyed its best season since 1999. … Nebraska Wesleyan’s Ryan Schneider caught seven passes for 159 yards and two touchdowns, leading the Prairie Wolves to a 51-27 win over Loras.

Rank ‘em

The seven ranked teams from the West Region all shifted one place in the final regular season Top 25 poll.

UW-Whitewater, St. Thomas and UW-Oshkosh all moved up one position to Nos. 2, 3 and 4, respectively. The Warhawks received five first place votes while the Tommies collected two.

Linfield and St. John’s both remained in the top-10, but slid one spot each. The Wildcats are ranked No. 8 this week while the Johnnies check in at No. 9.

Likewise, UW-Platteville and Coe each slipped one spot, coming in at Nos. 12 and 16, respectively.

Whitworth (17) and Redlands (11) received votes in this week’s poll.

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Josh Smith photo

Josh Smith has covered Division III sports for more than five years. He writes for multiple publications, including D3football.com beginning in 2012. He has won multiple awards for reporting and photography and lives in southern Wisconsin near UW-Whitewater, where he graduated with a degree in print journalism.

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