Three of this year's semifinalists were playing at this time last
Three of them started the season ranked in the top 10, and finished the regular season ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3 in the nation.
At this time last year, St. John Fisher's season had been over for weeks. The Cardinals started this regular season outside the D3football.com Top 25, moved in by Week 3 and had ascended to No. 16 by the end of the year.
So who are these guys crashing the final four party?
Their success this year was partially built on the relative failures of the two previous seasons and beyond.
Unlike the long and extensive histories of many Division III football programs, St. John Fisher established itself as a club team in 1971 and joined Division III in 1991, their first season under Paul Vosburgh, who remains the head coach today.
Vosburgh built a winning program by 1993, and peaked at 7-3 by 1995 before the Cardinals went from '96 to '01 without winning more than three games.
The tide again turned, and in 2004, the Cardinals made a habit of winning games in the final minutes, and joined the NCAA postseason for the first time. After a 31-3 opening-round victory against Muhlenberg, the Cardinals visited Doylestown, Pa., for a game against Delaware Valley, also a longtime doormat in the playoffs for the first time after winning several close games during the season.
Mark Robinson scored on a 12-yard run with 3:02 left to give St. John Fisher a 20-12 lead. It looked like another late-minutes win was in the works for the Cardinals.
Delaware Valley drove 65 yards in 10 plays and got the two-point conversion to tie with 1:02 left. On an ensuing third down, St. John Fisher was intercepted, the Aggies scored with nine seconds remaining and history was made -- for the other guys.
It didn't slow the program down, though. In 2005, the Cardinals were cruising, at 8-1 with just an overtime loss to Ithaca on their ledger, heading into the final weekend at home against Alfred. The Saxons scored 10 fourth-quarter points to steal a 13-7 victory and keep the Cardinals out of the playoffs. Then, in an ECAC bowl game at home against RPI, the Cardinals lost 26-22.
And still they wouldn't slow down.
"I think we've learned a lot from those situations," said Vosburgh by phone on Thursday. "Some of these kids were on that team in '04. Last year, we were coming along pretty well and we lost the last two."
But instead of feeling like a program that could never get over the hump, Vosburgh's players went back to the drawing board preparing for the next opportunity at a hump.
"They stayed really focused," the 16th-year coach said. "They work very well together as a team. They rely on each other to do their best."
And even after a 55-38 setback this season against Springfield, in which the Cardinals allowed Pride QB Chris Sharpe to rush for seven touchdowns, St. John Fisher never wavered. In the second round of the playoffs, they got another shot at the Pride, in Springfield. They held Sharpe to 69 yards rushing and a pair of TDs in a 27-21 victory.
It was sweet redemption, especially since the Springfield loss had the potential to ruin a successful season.
"It's just like after a win," Vosburgh said. "You can't dwell on a win either. You've got to get focused on the next one. It's the same thing with a loss. If you dwell on it, it can happen again."
The Cardinals haven't lost since.
"You just keep working at it," said Vosburgh of his team's response to both success and setbacks. "You never get satisfied with where you're at. We're always telling the team 'you either get better or you get worse.' "
Even though St. John Fisher has gone farther than it every has before, the hump that lies just ahead is the biggest of them all. Saturday, they play eight-time champion and nine-time finalist Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio.
"There's definitely a mystique about going to play Mount Union," Vosburgh said. "You'd have to be on some other planet to not know what they've done in football. Our kids have a lot of respect for them. They've talked about it, (saying) 'this is the type of program we want to become.' "
This St. John Fisher's chance to measure itself against the best.
"When we started developing our program, we measured ourselves against the best in New York, the Ithacas and the Cortlands," Vosburgh said. "Then we started measuring ourselves against the best in the East, and we got a chance to beat the so-called Beasts of the East in Rowan last week."
"Well this is the biggest measuring device of them all," he said.
From afar, the Cardinals appear to be all star running back Mark Robinson, who accounted for 2,426 total yards and 25 TDs in '04. Injuries in '05 opened the door for James Reile to become an all-Empire 8 back (1,235 yards to Robinson's 659), although Vosburgh said Reile's talent was evident and he was already in line to spell Robinson from time to time before the injury.
This year, Robinson has rushed for 1,460 yards at a 6.0 yards per carry clip, and Reile 803 at 5.5. Robinson has 23 of the pair's 32 rushing TDs.
Robinson has had at least 20 carries and 98 yards rushing in all three playoff wins this season, but QB Rob Kramer, a first-year starter, has helped diversify the offense. In the 31-0 quarterfinal victory against Rowan, his first eight completions went to seven different receivers. On the season, Kramer's hit 14 different receivers, including nine for TDs.
But his most impressive stats might be his 65.6% completion percentage and his 21-1 TD-to-interception ratio.
"Rob's done a great job for us," Vosburgh said. "He manages the offense, and that's what we ask him to do."
That offense has scored 39.6 points per game. It's rushed for 235.2 per game and gained 424.1 overall.
Against Mount Union, however, leading receiver Sean Nowicki (44 catches, 746 yards) will be out after breaking his leg on a kickoff return against the Pride.
Special teams has been a factor as well, evidenced by last week's Jimmy Smith punt return TD against Rowan, which energized the Cardinals early. But Vosburgh says the kicking game is solid, and the coverage units are as good as they've ever been. And any team this deep into the season is adept at doing little-noticed things well.
The defense is what's really come along for Fisher.
All-American linebacker Gene Lang is a tackling machine (126 this year) and cornerback Steve Step nick (4 INTs) is the Cardinals' top cover man.
But the area that's had the biggest improvement this season, says Vosburgh, is the defensive line.
"They've come along really well for us," he said. "They're young, and not that big. But they made a big difference in the second Springfield game and against Rowan."
Defensive tackle Greg Pyszczynski (6-0, 265) has made a big difference for the group in two games since returning from appendectomy surgery.
Vosburgh leans on a familiar coaching cliché when describing what St. John Fisher has done this season, although you really can stretch it out to his entire tenure at the school.
"Character is measured by how you handle adversity," he said. "We've regrouped. We've responded."
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