Losing is never easy, no matter how

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HAMPDEN-SYDNEY, Va. -- Conrad Singh, I feel your pain. Ditto for you J.D. Ricca, Jeff Inman, C.W. Clemmons and the rest of your Hampden-Sydney teammates.

Every Division III football player knows what it’s like to lose a game, even if the guys at Mount Union have to conjure up memories from their high school days. But the way Hampden-Sydney lost on Saturday, to a Bridgewater team they had beat, reminds me of the most painful losses in my own playing career.

The Tigers not only built a 21-0 first-half lead, but they thought they had stopped the Eagles 3 yards short of a first down, sitting on a 28-24 lead with 1:36 left.

Regardless of how it happened, Brian Awkard got separation from Carlos Martinez before catching this game-winning touchdown pass.
ODAC photo by Stacy Weston 

Then a penalty flag came out.

Much like what happened to Miami (Fla.) against Ohio State in last season’s Division I national championship, a few seconds of Tiger elation later ended in a devastating loss.

“The feeling of fourth down, fourth-and-10, stopping them, feeling we’ve got the ODAC championship pretty much in our hands, then to see a flag,” said Singh, “… that’s five seconds I’ll always remember. It’s gut-wrenching. It just hurts.”

Singh, who caught 11 passes for 121 yards, made it clear he didn’t think the defense lost the game for them. And while some H-SC supporters undoubtedly thought the officials helped them lose it, excuses don’t ease the pain.

“There has to be a very good reason why that just happened,” said sophomore quarterback Ricca, who threw for 202 yards, 143 in the first half. “Maybe we’ll go 9-1 and make the playoffs. Maybe we needed that … it’s tough.”

“We’ve got a fairly spiritual team and coaching staff,” said fourth-year Hampden-Sydney coach Marty Favret. “I told the guys after the game, [with] God, sometimes it’s just not in the cards. But he’s our guy, we’ve got to stick with him.”

As a player, some close losses will have you questioning everything you believe in, and everything you’ve worked for. That’s how some of Hampden-Sydney’s players reacted on Saturday, and I can remember staring at a scoreboard or two in disbelief thinking ‘how did we lose that game?’ during my own career.

I played from 1994-97 at Randolph-Macon, and there are some great memories, from both on and off the field, that I’d never trade for anything. Though I’m over wanting to play football and satisfied with what was accomplished, I still remember the toughest losses vividly. Allow me to recite from memory:

Like it was between Bridgewater and H-SC on Saturday, the ODAC title was pretty much on the line whenever we played Emory & Henry in the mid-1990s. Though it was always the sixth of 10 scheduled games, it might as well have been the grand finale in our minds.

In my sophomore year, Emory & Henry booted a field goal to beat us 17-14 as time ran out. The next year we took a 20-0 lead in the first quarter down at their place. Then the Wasps completed a deep pass to set up first-and-goal, but we made a goal-line stand. Our head coach at the time, Joe Riccio, got so fired up that he was out at the numbers high-fiving defensive players as we came off the field.

Riccio got so fired up, however, that his heart rate ran above 200 and the team doctor recommended he go to the hospital. Riccio was a coach who would call out “28 sweep” from the sidelines as he saw the E&H formations, and sure enough they’d run a sweep right into our defense.

Without our defensive mastermind, we played base the whole second half. E&H didn’t roll over. They jumped right back into the game, drawing to 20-17 late. Though our offense had gone stale, we were gold as long as we didn’t give up any more points.

Playing cornerback in a Cover 2, I failed to jam a wide receiver on a vertical pattern. He ran a fly, which went for about 60 yards because the strong safety didn’t have time to get over. That was the big play on what turned out to be Emory & Henry’s game-winning drive. They scored with less than 90 seconds left to win 24-20, completing a phenomenal comeback.

That was the longest bus ride home. Six hours it took, but if you couldn’t fall asleep, it must have felt like forever. I probably blamed myself for days, since a half-decent tap on the shoulder pads would have slowed the receiver down enough for our rover, Joe Seetoo, to make a play.

We were so bummed over losing that game and an ODAC championship we felt should have been ours, that we played horribly next week and squeaked out a win at Davidson.

The next year, however, we hosted Emory & Henry in the rain and trailed them at the half. The game was tied at 20 late, and they had the ball when a receiver streaked down the field. I was playing free safety by then, and Seetoo was a corner, but neither of us covered the guy very well. The pass overshot him by about 5 yards, and Seetoo and I exchanged a knowing glance, figuring we almost blew it again.

Not long after, defensive tackle Chuck Davis sacked the quarterback and caused a fumble, which we recovered. We took over with 59 seconds left and scored on a Sidney Chappell-to-Sean Eaton TD pass with 13 seconds left. Down 27-20, Emory & Henry threw a Hail Mary, which I intercepted.

As I slid to the ground with the clock nearing 0:00, half the team was already at midfield. I ended up on the bottom of a 50-person pile, which sucks unless you just won a championship. We actually had three conference games left after that, but we knew we won the title. And we did.

I may have never played in a Stagg Bowl, but that is one of my most cherished memories and plenty good enough for me. I can remember sitting on R-MC’s brick wall saying “You gotta believe” with teammates during the final drive. I remember posing for pictures in front of the scoreboard, which still read 27-20 long after the game.

In the Bristol paper the next day, an E&H linebacker said something about how we didn’t do anything special, how they blew it and we shouldn’t have won. It didn’t matter much to me though, as I knew he made those comments before an agonizing six-hour bus ride of his own.

How fitting it turned out to be. That day was made so much sweeter knowing that we’d been burned the two previous years against Emory & Henry. Maybe those losses had made us focus harder, desire it more and ultimately win the game.

Whatever it was, J.D. Ricca took me back to that moment when he said “There has to be a very good reason why that just happened.”

I’m sure there was. The strangest part is, despite the similarities between two teams trying to get over the hump in the ODAC, there’s no guarantee the H-SC story will end up like ours. And for Singh, a senior, the meaning he’ll take from the loss may not match how Ricca, a sophomore, digests it. Maybe Ricca will win an ODAC title some year and look back to Saturday’s game-that-should-have-been as his inspiration. Players will come to terms with the loss in different ways, and hold on to that day’s events for a long time.

What I really enjoy is knowing that players for both Bridgewater and Hampden-Sydney will remember this game long after they forget Saturday’s statistics and such. The Tigers will remember other details, like how they recorded their own warm-up song using a familiar hip-hop instrumental. Maybe someone there will remember the national anthem singer not making it to the press box on time, leaving the crowd of 5,104 scattered across the bowl of grass at “Death Valley” to sing an impromptu anthem.

I’m sure players from John Carroll to Pacific Lutheran to Amherst back to Wittenberg can relate. So can former players now in their 30s, 40s, 50s and beyond. We all have great stories and vivid memories.

Me? I can recount scores of moments in mid-90s R-MC lore. I remember running 100 100-yard sprints, one up-and-back for each point the defense gave up in a 50-50 tie against Catholic. Some weren’t even runs, we did duck walks and bear crawls and wheelbarrows. And we never gave up anything close to 50 again.

I can even identify with H-SC’s probable anger with the officials. In the old “Double Robbery” game at Franklin & Marshall in 1995, our kicker booted what would have been a 47-yard, last-minute, game-winning field goal — over the uprights! It looked good from where I stood, and I think I remember celebration on our sideline. The story goes that one official even began to raise his arms as if to signal good, before looking over and then concurring with the other official. We lost 28-27.

One of our senior captains threw his helmet after the kick, which was totally out of character but still cost us 15 yards. Not only had the visiting locker room been broken into at halftime, leaving our bags emptied and non-valuables strewn all over the locker room floor, but we felt we’d been robbed on the field too. It took me a long time to acknowledge that we went 6-3-1 that year. I told a lot of people we were 7-2-1.

More from Eagles-Tigers
There are hundreds of great games across Division III each year, many punctuated by wild finishes. But I have never seen such a crazy finish followed by such an honest press conference. Which, at Hampden-Sydney, is done in what looks like it was once a classroom in a very old brick building. No microphones or cameras. The number of writers is equal to the number of players being interviewed. Anyway.

A quick review. The Tigers dominated the first half, using a blocked punt recovery to surge to a 21-3 lead. Bridgewater, which in its comeback recovered a kick that wasn’t fielded near the Tiger 20, went up 24-21. Hampden-Sydney then straightened up and went the length of the field for a 28-24 lead, which is how the fourth quarter began and nearly ended.

The Tigers used their second of three timeouts trying to get the Eagles to jump offside, then punted with 2:28 left. Midway through the drive, there was the fourth-and-10 roughing the passer call. Later, there was a non-call on an offensive pushoff during the game-winning touchdown. Then there was another non-call on a possible pass interference as H-SC tried to get about half of the 65 yards it needed while trailing in the final 34 seconds.

To be fair, officials are only human and miss calls all the time. Sometimes they appear to miss calls to the untrained eye, but are actually applying the game’s rules as written. Also to be fair, the Eagles had been penalized 10 times for 91 yards before the roughing call, compared with just five for 34 for Hampden-Sydney.

And as any coach worth his weight in clichés will tell you, one play doesn’t lose a football game. Nor does a call.

“You want to talk about questionable calls,” asked Bridgewater linebacker Gary Nelson. “There were questionable calls all day. You can’t just say that last call was questionable. I just always want the players to do it. I don’t want the referees to decide who wins and who loses.”

That’s honest moment No. 1.

No. 2: “I’m just glad we won,” Nelson added.

No. 3: “In the course of a game, there are touch calls either way,” said Bridgewater coach Mike Clark. “Over time, I’d like to think they even out.”

It should be noted that after the roughing the passer call, Bridgewater drew a grounding penalty that set them up with first-and-25. Brandon Wakefield, the Eagle quarterback who had an up and down game, completed a 23-yard pass to Nicholas Lehto. He completed three more passes consecutively, the last to Brian Awkard for the 22-yard game-winner.

On that play, Awkard admitted it was a push off. Hey, that’s a reality between defensive backs and wide receivers. It rarely gets called on offensive players. Defenders have to live with it and/or fight through it.

But thanks, Brian, for honest moment No. 4.

“I had to get a little separation,” Awkard said. “He was holding me a little bit, so I just gave him a little nudge off me, and caught the ball.”

On the roughing call, so important because H-SC thought it won the game and the ODAC more or less until they saw the flag, no one could really say it was roughing.

“I don’t really know,” said Wakefield, who was 7-for-11 in leading the Eagles 80 yards in 1:54 to win it. “I got hit, and soon afterwards I got up to shake hands with him. I got up, told him good hit, and I saw the flag. I guess the ref thought it was a late hit.”

Thanks for honest moment No. 5.

“I was like ‘thank you,’ Wakefield said. “I guess it was a little bit late, but did I say ‘great call?’ No.”

That’s No. 6.

And Clark hit on No. 7 when he said: “That’s a tough game for anybody to lose, but I’ll never apologize for winning.”

“I have a lot of respect for Hampden-Sydney,” Clark said. “When we made our move three or four years ago, they said ‘we’re going to chase you.’ There’s no question they’ve caught up. I’m proud to play in a conference where there are two playoff-caliber teams. I told Marty after that game that I want to see them in the playoffs. I want to play them again.”

The Eagles needed the win after losing to Christopher Newport, who Clark and many others believe is a “Rowan in training.”

Said Lehto: “Since we dropped that game to Christopher Newport, this was kind of desperation for us … At halftime, especially the seniors, we had that sense of urgency, because this could be our last shot.”

Way to go Nick, for No. 8.

On the officiating, for No. 9, Favret said: “I know the officials do the best they can. It’s just hard to look at [my players] and tell ‘em life’s not always fair. I know it’s a long game, 60 minutes. I’m sure there were calls we got. I’ve been around a lot of football.”

And finally, No. 10 and the fantastic finish itself.

Favret alluded to Bridgewater’s win over Rowan in the 2001 semifinals, and likely other Eagle comebacks such as their rally from a 28-3 halftime deficit for a 59-42 win over Washington & Jefferson in the 2000 playoffs.

“Mike Clark’s had some wins like that, a few miracles. He got another one today.”

Two’s news
A few weeks back, ATN decided it was boring to see the breakdown of No. 1 votes in the D3football.com Top 25. There’s going to be a 25 next to Mount Union for a long time, it seems. But who’s coming in at No. 2? Now that’s interesting. It’s a question we’ve been asking since the preseason.

Here’s the breakdown of teams who received No. 2 votes in this week’s poll and how many: St. John’s 17, UW-La Crosse 4, Baldwin-Wallace 1, Brockport State 1,
Linfield 1, Wheaton 1.

Poll positions
Of course there’s only one authority on the matter (Sorry, I couldn’t resist), but it’s fun to compare the polls in Division III. Since polls and rankings by nature are inexact sciences, there’s no harm in acknowledging us, the coaches’ poll and the Football Gazette Top 40. Here are a few interesting tidbits about this week’s polls:

With so many Top 25 losers this week, these polls had to get jumbled. In fact, only Mount Union (1) and St. John’s (2) hold the same spot in all three. Only Linfield (3), Bethel (21) and Capital (24) held the same spot in two of them. Most were in about the same place throughout, but the three polls could be confusing to be a UW-Stout fan. Are the Blue Devils 25th, 31st or not good enough to receive a single vote? What about RPI, which is either 15th, 36th or 38th (counting “also receiving votes” as a spot in the rankings)?

Springfield is as high as 10th and as low as 29th. Interesting.

There are 225 Division III teams eligible for our poll, compared to 117 eligible for the AP’s Division I poll. That means only 11% of Division III teams make the Top 25, and 17 percent make the Top 40. In Division I, 21% of the teams — one in five instead of one in 10 — are ranked. A Division III Top 40 ranks a better percentage of teams than a Top 25, but 47 teams received votes in the coaches poll and 52 in the D3football.com poll, for what that’s worth.

Pool C glance
This is by no means as official as the Pool B power rankings that we’ll see on the site as we approach the playoffs, but barring upsets, here are a few teams from automatic qualifier conferences that could find themselves hoping for one of three Pool C (runner-up) bids in late November.

Baldwin-Wallace/Capital: The OAC runner-up is usually a lock. It will be especially if it is Mount Union.
Bethel: Finishing second to St. John’s will look awful good to the committee. And there’s no guarantee they won’t beat the Johnnies on Nov. 8. The 5-0 Royals have great out-of-conference wins over Whitworth and UW-Eau Claire.
Wittenberg/Wooster/Wabash: The NCAC sent two last season, and with three strong teams, it could happen again. One of these teams will have at least two losses, and another will have at least one, so there could be a clear pecking order.
Mary Hardin-Baylor: If they win out but lose to Hardin-Simmons, the Crusaders are a good bet for a berth. The Cowboys and Howard Payne don’t look good with early-season out-of-conference losses. East Texas Baptist may factor in as well.
Hampden-Sydney: Probably about fifth on the list, depending on what happens in Iowa and in the Freedom. The close loss to Bridgewater says something, since the Eagles could finish 9-1 with a loss to a playoff probable in Christopher Newport.
Loras/Simpson/Wartburg: Eight IIAC opponents and former conference member Upper Iowa on each schedule left just one out-of-conference opening. All three won, Simpson over Washington U., Wartburg over NAIA Peru State and Loras over Monmouth. It’d be hard to ignore the Knights if Loras or Simpson wins. Situation is same as NCAC as none of three contenders have played one another.
Western Connecticut/Springfield/Kings Point: The Freedom could end in a three-way tie. Lots left to sort out, but Springfield’s non-conference wins over Montclair State and Ithaca are good news. Western Connecticut’s loss to Rowan is what it is.
Lycoming/Delaware Valley loser: MAC runner-up will have a shot, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. The conference race looks like it could be a scrum to the finish, as seven of the 11 are .500 or better. Lyco’s nine-game schedule never helps.
WIAC runner-up: Always a possibility. La Crosse had the best non-conference results, though Oshkosh is also unbeaten, but against a weaker group. Whitewater’s only loss is to Mount Union, and Stout’s loss to Division II Augustana (S.D.) doesn’t hurt them as much as beating Hardin-Simmons helps them.
Johns Hopkins: McDaniel and Muhlenberg need the Centennial’s AQ, and Johns Hopkins probably does too. The Blue Jays non-conference schedule isn’t overwhelming, but they outscored four opponents 108-16.
Everyone else: Some teams probably got left out, but we’re only halfway through and there’s lots to sort out still. We’ll keep an eye on things. Remember, the NJAC and Northwest are among the Pool B conferences that may have two contenders within.

Stat of the Week
Averett’s Gentry Parker blocked three punts and intercepted a two-point conversion pass, yet the Cougars lost 27-9. Tell that to your special teams coach!

National game of the Week
No. 14 Springfield at Western Connecticut: This Freedom clash could have an effect on the final FFC championship race, plus the polls and Pool C pursuit.

Honorable mentions: No. 8 UW-Stevens Point at No. 25 UW-Stout in what’s pretty much a WIAC title elimination game. Wabash at Wittenberg was the game of the year last season, a 46-43 Little Giants win in OT. The Tigers are ranked 10th coming in. Also, Loras at No. 6 Wartburg in the IIAC, No. 8 Baldwin-Wallace at Ohio Northern in the OAC, Howard Payne at No. 21 Hardin-Simmons in the ASC, No. 12 Brockport State at St. John Fisher, Union at RPI, Redlands at Occidental, Westfield State at Mass. Maritime. Keep an eye on Lycoming against FDU-Florham, which upset the Warriors in a shocker last season.

Hindsight game of the Week
I think I’ve made it abundantly clear how crazy the Bridgewater-Hampden-Sydney game was. I’m sure there were great ones all over the country, but I don’t know if any would have topped this one.

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