|Thomas More's season started with a long trip, and a loss, but the Saints have managed to win enough games since to stay in contention for a playoff bid, which could extend the program's last season as a Division III member.
Photo for N.C. Wesleyan athletics by Carl Lewis
By Joe Sager
Thomas More’s road back to the NAIA has proven to be a long one.
The Saints, who joined the Presidents’ Athletic Conference in 2005, left the conference last spring. They will return to the NAIA next fall for the first time since 1990. The shuffling left the team with the unenviable task of cobbling together an independent football schedule this fall.
As a result, Thomas More has had to hit the road. And, hit the road again. And, hit the road some more.
After the Saints wrap up the regular season Saturday at St. John’s in Collegeville, Minnesota, they will have traversed 7,568 miles this fall.
The Saints' road show
It's been a long road getting from there to here,
|9/1||at N.C. Wesleyan||L, 35-28||1,148|
|9/8||at Hanover||W, 27-18||146|
|9/15||vs. UW-Platteville||W, 35-28||—|
|9/22||at Huntingdon||W, 38-35||1,100|
|9/29||at St. Lawrence||W, 48-12||1,424|
|10/6||at Emory and Henry||W, 41-27||622|
|10/13||vs. Muhlenberg||L, 34-31||—|
|10/20||at St. Scholastica||W, 35-0||1,544|
|11/3||vs. Lake Erie||W, 44-0||—|
|11/10||at St. John's||1,572|
“Anytime you look down the barrel and have seven road games staring at you, that’s a task in itself, let alone seven games traveling more than 7,000 miles,” Thomas More coach Trevor Stellman said. “When you have 18 to 22-year-old young men, each one of them handles the situation a little differently. It was a struggle early on for us to find the best way to keep our kids busy, yet clear-minded enough to be able to play and play the best we could. As the season progressed, we’ve gotten better at it. Guys have taken to what we do on the road to make it a lot more enjoyable for them.”
Thomas More is no stranger to long travel. Located in Crestview Hills, Kentucky, just outside of Cincinnati, the Saints regularly trekked more than 300 miles across Ohio to play PAC foes, who are based around the Pittsburgh area.
This year, though, the voyages are more extensive. The team had two visits to Minnesota on the slate, along with stops in North Carolina, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and upstate New York, not far from the Canadian border. The trips got longer as the season went on, too. The shortest was a 146-mile round trip to Hanover, Ind., and the two longest (nearly 1,600 roundtrip) came at the end – jaunts to St. Scholastica and St. John’s in Minnesota. For those really long trips, the team breaks it up over two days.
“Being in the PAC, every road game we had in the conference was an overnight trip. That was nothing new. The new aspect came with the trips to upstate New York and Minnesota, where we had to leave on a Thursday afternoon. So, being away from own beds for two days is probably the biggest change,” Stellman said. “You worry about how much school they are missing, too. It makes my job a little more stressful ensuring that we take care of everything we need to, not just on the field.”
|Thomas More took an 1,100-mile round trip to Alabama at the end of September and came away with a win against Huntingdon.
Huntingdon athletics photo
Thomas More’s players have tried to make the most of their time.
“We were used to the long drives, but we weren’t used to the 12-hour-plus drives. I wouldn’t say we were stressed, but it could be a little difficult being on the bus that long and then getting off and trying to prepare for the team,” Thomas More senior running back Hjavier Pitts said. “Each road trip has been like a little vacation for us. We continued to bond throughout the season and come together as a team.”
“For the longer bus rides, we can split it up in two days so it doesn’t take as much of a toll on your body. You’d like to have more home games, but I don’t think travel has been that tough on us,” Thomas More junior quarterback Justin Post said. “On trips, we’re always having Madden (video game) tournaments or goofing around in the same hotel room. Really, we’re just coming together as teammates, more than anything.
“As a team we’ve just tried to focus on each week. We didn’t really look ahead. We wanted to focus on that week’s game and having a good bus ride back home rather than a long bus ride afterward.”
Fortunately for the Saints, they’ve avoided any major travel issues – except for the first week’s ride home from a 35-28 loss at N.C. Wesleyan.
“We take two buses and, on the way home, the air conditioning went out on the bus I was on. We were in North Carolina and is really humid. Everyone had shirts off. It was pretty miserable,” Post said. “After a while, a couple guys got to go on the other bus and be in the cool air. I was one of those guys, fortunately.”
|The Thomas More Saints shut down the St. Scholastica Saints in an October matchup which was more than 1,500 miles in the making.
St. Scholastica athletics photo
A stop at St. Lawrence University resulted in a little snowball fight in September.
“We were walking back to the bus after our walkthrough and there was a pile of snow (from an ice rink resurfacing machine) off to one side. We started having a little snowball fight,” Pitts said. “One of the players picked up a snowball and hit one of our coaches with it accidentally. He wasn’t too happy.”
Despite all the miles, Thomas More (7-2) is challenging for an at-large playoff berth after years of contending for – and winning – PAC championships. The Saints could strengthen their postseason case with a triumph Saturday at No. 4 St. John’s.
“We like to think of every game as a playoff game for us. Being an independent, we didn’t have a conference goal. Our goal was to get to the playoffs and win a national championship,” Post said. “In order to do that, we knew we’d have to win a lot of games on the road. I think this game will be a real test for us to see what we can do the rest of the season.”
Thomas More’s two losses came by a touchdown, 35-28, at N.C. Wesleyan in the opener and by three, 34-31 at home against Muhlenberg
“When I sat down last year and started trying to find games, more or less, I knew our schedule would have us in the mix of things if we took care of what we needed to,” Stellman said. “That’s been our goal. We’ve treated each game like a playoff game. When you lose one right off the bat, it kind of makes you pin your ears back and start working even harder. Our guys have done that. Muhlenberg made a couple more plays and got the better of us. We just have to take care of business and make sure we’re still in the conversation Saturday night.”
Added Pitts, “I am pretty happy where we are as a team. We could be undefeated. We’ve learned from the mistakes we made and we’re continuing to grow. I don’t think we’ve played our best game yet. Our goal is to win out and finish this week strong and, hopefully, get in the playoffs.”