January 13, 2011

Team of the 2000s: Portraits of greatness

Blake Elliott
Blake Elliott had a starring role for one of Division III's championship teams of the decade, but was no one-year wonder.
2003 photo by Tom Dahlin

D3football.com
All-Decade Team
2000-2009

Pos. First team
QB Greg Micheli, Mount Union
RB Nate Kmic, Mount Union
RB Justin Beaver, UW-Whitewater
WR Pierre Garcon, Norwich-Mount Union
WR Blake Elliott, St. John's
TE Michael Allan, Whitworth
T J.D. Sheldon, Augustana
G Derek Blanchard, Mount Union
C Josh Knox, Hardin-Simmons
G Josh Warner, Brockport State
T Blaine Westemeyer, Augustana
Defense
DE Bryan Robinson, Wesley
DT Adam Haas, Cortland State
DT Ryan Kleppe, UW-Whitewater
DE Jeremy Hood, St. John's
LB Jerimiah Janssen, St. Norbert
LB Jerrell Freeman, Mary Hardin-Baylor
LB Jermaine Taylor, Bridgewater (Va.)
CB Pete Ittersagen, Wheaton (Ill.)
S Kyle Hausler, Capital
S Josh Kubiak, Mary Hardin-Baylor
CB Clinton Tabb, Rowan
Special teams
RET Larry Beavers, Wesley
K Jeff Schebler, UW-Whitewater
P

Alex Groh, Occidental

Click here for the full team

By Ryan Tipps
D3sports.com

“At the base of it, you need to have strong leaders and good teammates.”

“God-given ability is part of it, but then also it’s what the student-athlete does with it.”

“I think a lot of it is just pure passion for the game.”

These statements -- by former St. John’s wideout Blake Elliott, UW-Whitewater coach Lance Leipold and former St. Norbert linebacker Jerimiah Janssen, respectively -- help paint a portrait of greatness in Division III.

It’s as much internal as it is external. It takes commitment not just for a game or a season -- but for a career. As D3football.com releases its All-Decade team, the players who are honored were not just flashes in the pan, they were the players who carved out a legacy on their respective teams and who were counted on season after season to perform at the highest expectations.

“Our coaches would never put you in a position where they felt like you couldn’t do the job,” said Greg Micheli, a 2009 Mount Union graduate and Gagliardi Trophy winner who led his team to two Stagg Bowl wins. “You know what’s expected of you. They’re actually going to put more pressure on you in practice so that whatever you face in games, whatever nerves you have, all that stuff you’ve worked out before and know how to deal with.”

Division III players take the field without scholarships and, in many cases, without thousands upon thousands of fans to inspire them. Their incentive? Love of the game; camaraderie with their teammates; desire to succeed.

Only partly are stats indicative of greatness. There are also the intangibles.

“The No. 1 word that comes to my mind is commitment, because there’s so many things that a Division III player has to go through,” said Mary Hardin-Baylor head coach Pete Fredenburg. “A person who is successful at Division III is truly committed to being the best person he can be and is truly committed to the team and the school he plays for.”

The D3football.com All-Decade team encompasses the years 2000-2009. To be eligible, a player had to graduate in that span or play the majority of his career then. For that reason, Mount Union’s Cecil Shorts, a junior in 2009, is listed, but Whitewater’s Levell Coppage, who was a sophomore, was not eligible. Mount Union, which won six national titles in the decade, was the most heavily represented team on the list with 13 players.

For St. John’s, Elliott, who graduated in 2003 and is one of two people honored twice on the All-Decade list thanks to special teams, said the environment in Collegeville, Minn., and playing for coach John Gagliardi cultivated his success.

Jerimiah Janssen
Jerimiah Janssen finished his St. Norbert career with 296 total tackles and 29 sacks, helping the Green Knights get to the playoffs in 1999, 2000 and 2001.
St. Norbert athletics file photo

“You have to have the talent and the work ethic to want to play,” said Elliott, who signed with the Minnesota Vikings after school but broke his leg in training camp. “At St. John’s, it was definitely a different environment ... in the fact that there really wasn’t this exterior drive from coaching and from the program to be a great player. It was really the kind of system in how John ran things and how the program was historically. There was pressure to kind of live up to how good the program has been and how good John has been as a coach.”

The Johnnies don’t cut players, so Elliott quickly found himself beside 180 guys in practice and on the sidelines. He said he was one of 22 wide receivers on the roster. The atmosphere made him self-motivate toward greatness.

“It became apparent very quickly based on the numbers and the competition for those positions that if you didn’t do A, B, C, D, E, F, all the way down the line, if you didn’t do everything that was expected of you, not only from a football perspective but from an academic perspective ... it was kind of survival of the fittest. You just weren’t going to play,” he said.

Many of the best players can be found on the best teams. Mount Union and UW-Whitewater, teams that met in the Stagg Bowl for the last half of the decade, are well represented. They benefit from seeing some of the top players compete beyond just the 10-week regular season and against some of the country’s best competition. When a player succeeds against the best, it’s hard to doubt their ability.

But most players and coaches will tell you that it never comes down to one guy or one position. Football is a team sport, and the team wins or loses as a whole.

Jerrell Freeman
Jerrell Freeman was the 2007 D3football.com Defensive Player of the Year, the second year the award was given.
Photo by Josh Bowerman, D3sports.com

Over the past 10 years, Fredenburg and his Crusaders have faced Whitewater a handful of times in both the regular season and the postseason. Each time, Whitewater has come out the victor, but UMHB has fought some close games, even against UW-W teams stacked with standout athletes such as running back and Gagliardi Trophy winner Justin Beaver.

“When you get a team like Wisconsin-Whitewater and certainly a great player like Justin Beaver, the reality is that it’s not just him,” said Fredenburg, who coached four players on the All-Decade team. “They have so many good players and have such a great scheme, you have to develop a way to just stop their offense. And obviously, with [Beaver] being the kingpin to that … you have to be fundamentally sound on defense.”

Whitewater’s coach, who has been D3football.com’s Coach of the Year each of the past four seasons, noted that some players are easier than others to adjust for. Mount Union’s first-team All-Decade wideout Pierre Garcon, who now plays for the Indianapolis Colts, was someone who Leipold and his team would key in on. But other Mount players, such as offensive lineman Derek Blanchard, or a UMHB athlete such as linebacker Jerrell Freeman were a little more difficult to make adjustments for.

“Most of the time when we see these guys, we still have to believe in what we’re doing that got us to those points,” Leipold said. “You can’t push the panic button too much. You have to have confidence.”

Especially by those who graduated years ago, the game is missed. For Elliott, it’s partly the camaraderie.

“The guys that you play with are the guys that you live with, are your best friends,” he said, “and seven years later are still my best friends.”

Greg Micheli
Greg Micheli was a two-time first-team D3football.com All-American quarterback.
Photo by David Rich, d3photography.com

Janssen, who joined the New York Jets for a year after graduating in 2002 as the most nationally honored football player in St. Norbert history, said, “I still miss it to this day. ... Former basketball players can go out there and play a pickup game, but not too many guys at my age want to go out there and put on some pads and hit each other.”

Micheli said he misses the practices because it is there where athletes spend the bulk of their time. “That’s really when you develop those relationships and become a team,” he said.

Division III’s greatest players come into the system with natural abilities and a strong foundation of intangibles. They are the players who differentiate themselves from the pack. Fredenburg said athletes such as Freeman, a linebacker who graduated in 2008, had an “incredible innate ability to find the football,” was unselfish and had a deep worth ethic.

The coach’s job is to get players in the right positions and to nurture the natural skill, he said.

“Most of it at this level is coached into guys,” Mount Union’s Micheli said. “You can get away with your athleticism carrying you when you’re in junior high and in high school. But once you get to this level, even Division III, everybody’s good. … The ones who are starting are willing to take coaching.

“If you try to get by on just your athleticism,” he said, “you’ll be a pretty average player.”

Sep. 23: All times Eastern
Final
at Bridgewater State 34, Fitchburg State 25
Box Score
Sep. 24: All times Eastern
Final
Christopher Newport 17, at TCNJ 0
Final
at Hobart 27, Union 23
Box Score Recap
Final
at Thomas More 20, Carnegie Mellon 16
Box Score Recap
Final
at Massachusetts Maritime 32, Worcester State 14
Box Score Recap
Final
at Endicott 37, Nichols 0
Box Score Recap
Final
MIT 30, at Maine Maritime 13
Box Score
Final
at Buffalo State 40, Morrisville State 24
Box Score Recap
Final
at Salve Regina 48, Coast Guard 10
Box Score
Final
St. Lawrence 20, at RPI 14
Box Score Recap
Final
at Framingham State 23, Western Connecticut 17
Box Score
Final
at Montclair State 21, Rowan 14
Box Score Recap
Final
at Stevenson 54, FDU-Florham 15
Box Score Recap
Final
at Trinity (Conn.) 38, Bates 7
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at Western New England 59, Curry 28
Box Score
Final
at Utica 24, Cortland 13
Box Score Recap Recap
Final
Colby 9, at Williams 7
Box Score Photos
Final
at Middlebury 40, Bowdoin 3
Box Score
Final
at Amherst 34, Hamilton 0
Box Score
Final
Kean 24, at William Paterson 13
Box Score Recap
Final
at DePauw 66, Hiram 17
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
Franklin and Marshall 45, at Juniata 22
Box Score
Final
at Kenyon 31, Allegheny 7
Box Score
Final
Salisbury 35, at Southern Virginia 0
Box Score
Final
Albright 20, at Delaware Valley 17
Box Score Recap
Final
Lycoming 28, at Misericordia 24
Box Score
Final
at Plymouth State 30, Mass-Dartmouth 14
Box Score
Final
at Husson 35, Alfred State 0
Box Score
Final
at Springfield 28, WPI 23
Box Score Recap
Final
at Moravian 24, Dickinson 10
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at Denison 45, Wooster 7
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at Wittenberg 24, Wabash 14
Box Score
Final
at St. Vincent 57, Grove City 32
Box Score Recap
Final
at Susquehanna 55, Gettysburg 40
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at King's 21, Lebanon Valley 17
Box Score Recap
Final
at Alfred 20, Ithaca 6
Box Score Recap
Final
at Widener 25, Wilkes 23
Final
at McDaniel 30, Ursinus 27
Box Score Recap
Final
at Muskingum 28, Marietta 10
Box Score Photos
Final
at Minnesota-Morris 28, Iowa Wesleyan 27
Final
at John Carroll 42, Heidelberg 14
Box Score
Final
Ohio Northern 16, at Otterbein 10
Box Score Photos
Final
Case Western Reserve 35, at Waynesburg 7
Box Score
Final
at Franklin 44, Bluffton 38
Box Score Recap
Final
Rose-Hulman 23, at Defiance 15
Box Score
Final
at Centre 49, Chicago 27
Box Score
Final
at Mount St. Joseph 38, Manchester 19
Box Score Recap
Final
Hanover 49, at Anderson 25
Box Score
Final
at Merchant Marine 55, Rochester 7
Box Score
Final
Johns Hopkins 30, at Muhlenberg 24
Box Score Recap
Final
Concordia-Chicago 42, at Maranatha Baptist 10
Box Score Photos
Final
Washington U. 36, at Birmingham-Southern 21
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
UW-Platteville 56, at Lakeland 0
Box Score
Final
at Northwestern (Minn.) 38, Martin Luther 20
Box Score
Final
at Eureka 28, MacMurray 13
Box Score
Final
at Westminster (Mo.) 35, Greenville 14
Box Score
Final
Dubuque 30, at Luther 17
Box Score Recap
Final
Monmouth 52, at Lake Forest 6
Box Score Photos
Final
St. Thomas 33, at St. John's 21
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at Augsburg 49, Carleton 17
Box Score Photos
Final
Bethel 44, at St. Olaf 7
Box Score
Final
at Hamline 42, Gustavus Adolphus 40
Box Score Recap
Final
at UW-Whitewater 35, Morningside 21
Box Score Recap
Final
at Hardin-Simmons 48, Texas Lutheran 38
Box Score Photos
Final
at UW-River Falls 42, Southwestern 22
Box Score
Final
Simpson 17, at Buena Vista 9
Box Score
Final
at St. Scholastica 49, Crown 13
Box Score Recap
Final
Cornell 46, at Beloit 41
Box Score
Final
at Carthage 27, Augustana 24
Final
Coe 48, at Nebraska Wesleyan 17
Box Score Recap
Final
at Wartburg 56, Finlandia 0
Box Score
Final
at Wheaton (Ill.) 10, Elmhurst 6
Box Score Recap
Final
Hendrix 42, at Millsaps 14
Box Score
Final
Illinois Wesleyan 45, at North Park 10
Final
at Macalester 34, Grinnell 0
Box Score
Final
at Ripon 33, Knox 19
Final
Illinois College 40, at Lawrence 15
Final
UW-Oshkosh 77, at Morthland College (Ill.) 0
Box Score
Final
Central 42, at Loras 34
Box Score Recap
Final
at Geneva 35, Thiel 27
Box Score
Final
UW-Eau Claire 40, at Wisconsin Lutheran 14
Box Score
Final
St. John Fisher 42, at Brockport 38
Box Score Recap
Final
UW-Stevens Point 44, at Adrian 19
Box Score
Final
UW-La Crosse 41, at Carroll 7
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at Berry 41, Sewanee 3
Box Score Recap Recap Photos
Final
Westminster (Pa.) 38, at Bethany 9
Box Score
Final
Ohio Wesleyan 29, at Oberlin 16
Box Score
Final
at Tufts 17, Wesleyan 14
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
Mount Union 49, at Baldwin Wallace 7
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at Capital 35, Wilmington 21
Box Score
Final
at Southwestern Assemblies 23, Austin 17
Box Score Photos
Cancelled
Langston at McMurry
Video Live Stats
Final
at North Central (Ill.) 42, Millikin 7
Box Score Recap
Final
at Chapman 19, Trinity (Texas) 17
Box Score Recap
Sep. 29: All times Eastern
6:30 PM
Randolph-Macon at Shenandoah
Live Stats
Sep. 24: All times Eastern
Final
at Thomas More 20, Carnegie Mellon 16
Box Score Recap
Final
at Hobart 27, Union 23
Box Score Recap
Final
Christopher Newport 17, at TCNJ 0
Final
at Wittenberg 24, Wabash 14
Box Score
Final
Salisbury 35, at Southern Virginia 0
Box Score
Final
Albright 20, at Delaware Valley 17
Box Score Recap
Final
at Utica 24, Cortland 13
Box Score Recap Recap
Final
at Stevenson 54, FDU-Florham 15
Box Score Recap
Final
at Franklin 44, Bluffton 38
Box Score Recap
Final
Johns Hopkins 30, at Muhlenberg 24
Box Score Recap
Final
St. Thomas 33, at St. John's 21
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at UW-Whitewater 35, Morningside 21
Box Score Recap
Final
at Hardin-Simmons 48, Texas Lutheran 38
Box Score Photos
Final
at Wheaton (Ill.) 10, Elmhurst 6
Box Score Recap
Final
UW-Platteville 56, at Lakeland 0
Box Score
Final
UW-Oshkosh 77, at Morthland College (Ill.) 0
Box Score
Final
Central 42, at Loras 34
Box Score Recap
Final
St. John Fisher 42, at Brockport 38
Box Score Recap
Final
Mount Union 49, at Baldwin Wallace 7
Box Score Recap Photos
Final
at North Central (Ill.) 42, Millikin 7
Box Score Recap