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.”

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at UW-Whitewater 52, Mount Union 14
@ Salem Stadium; Salem, Va.
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Final
at Mount Union 41, North Central (Ill.) 40
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