November 6, 2008

It's no miracle Millsaps is here

More news about: Millsaps

The Millsaps defense limited Trinity to 19 completions in 35 attempts and picked off two passes.
Trinity University photo by Joshua Moczygemba

SAN ANTONIO – If a tale about how enduring difficult times can make triumph feel so much sweeter seems a little stale, Around the Nation understands. There's been a lot of that going around this week.

In their first meeting since last season's stunning 15-lateral finish, Millsaps' 56-27 win at Trinity was resounding. But the script for the Majors' version of All's Well That Ends Well begins not with Saturday's final act or last year's 'Miracle in Mississippi,' but four years ago on the very same E.M. Stevens Field.

"We were talking about that on the way here, our freshman year," safety Jacob Hanberry said amid Saturday's postgame revelry. "Coming out here and getting murdered."

Coach Mike DuBose, then in his only season as Millsaps' defensive coordinator, referred to the 41-0 loss to the Tigers that ended a 2-7 season slightly more diplomatically.

"We didn't play well, [quarterback] Juan [Joseph] got knocked out," the former player at Alabama under Paul "Bear" Bryant said. "They had a lot of memories here that were unpleasant memories. But a lot of people have come here and had unpleasant memories. It's a tough place to play a football game. Trinity is an outstanding football team."

Indeed, not long after Steve Mohr took over a foundering program in 1990, the Tigers became the class of the SCAC, winning 14 of 15 conference championships between 1993 and 2007, topped with a Stagg Bowl appearance in 2002.

Millsaps broke Trinity's run of 13 consecutive SCAC titles in Hanberry and Joseph's sophomore season, capping the turnaround from 2-7 to 7-3 with a 34-12 home victory against Trinity. Despite surrendering 21 second half points in a first-round playoff loss at Carnegie Mellon, Millsaps seemed to usher in a new era in SCAC football.

But 2007 veered slightly off course. Two seasons after they were two one-point wins from being 0-9, they twice lost in agonizing fashion and missed a return to the playoffs at 8-2. Ahead 20-6 in the fourth quarter of their season-opening game against rival Mississippi College, the Majors began substituting and the Choctaws scored 21 unanswered points to swipe a one-point victory. Millsaps responded by outscoring its next six opponents 238-51. Against Trinity, it was all over but the celebrating when Casey Younger stopped the Tigers' Blake Barmore short of a two-point conversion, preserving a 24-22 lead. With 1:37 left and onside kick in hand, all Millsaps had to do was run out the clock. The SCAC title and accompanying playoff berth would have been theirs.

After three Nick Namias runs, Millsaps called a timeout with eight seconds to set up its fourth down play. Backup quarterback Burt Pereira went into the game to scramble around and kill the clock. Trinity's Ryan Johnson tackled him on the 40-yard line with two seconds left.

Unless you've been living on Neptune or doing a bid in TV- and internet-free prison, you know what happened next.

Joseph recalled a "dismayed" team enduring the "heartbreak" that followed. They finished the season strong, but the play that cost them their season was not soon forgotten. Eric McCarty said it made players work harder in the offseason, and that the adversity made them better people overall.

"I don't want to say ‘it happens' because it really doesn't," Joseph said of the "Miracle" play. "But there's nothing else you can do but move on from it."

And so they did. Millsaps buried the past by winning its first seven games this season by 20 points or more. After a year's wait, and an 11-hour bus ride and overnight stay to draw it out a little longer, Saturday arrived.

Even though they knew last season was last season and couldn't be changed by anything they did against Trinity this year, the miracle ending wasn't exactly forgotten.

"It's kind of hard to completely put it in the back of your mind," Joseph said. "Even when you go home and people ask where you go to school. You say ‘Millsaps,' and they say ‘Oh, the lateral team?' "

The Majors took out their frustrations on Saturday. Before the game, the offensive line drills were extra vocal. But Millsaps said everything else it needed to with its play. Joseph guided the offense to 576 total yards, scoring 14 points in each quarter. He ran for two touchdowns, passed for three more and led the Majors in rushing with 91 yards. He hit McCarty, usually over the middle, nine times for 115 yards.

And the defense, which DuBose said worried him in the third quarter when Trinity cut the gap to 42-27 and riled up its home crowd with a defensive stop and a fluid drive down the field.

Hanberry, who'd been having an up-and-down day, making a few big pass breakups but getting beat for a touchdown, stayed in perfect position on his receiver and intercepted Bryant Wilson in the end zone on the second play of the fourth quarter. With four passes to McCarty, Raymece Savage and Michael Galatas, Joseph drove Millsaps to the 9-yard line, where Kenny Metzger finished the job on an outside run. The Majors led by 22 and were finally going to live down their last-second collapse from the year before.
And that made it more than just another 2008 Millsaps blowout.

"I think [it makes it sweeter]," McCarty said. "Any time you go through something hard and you come out of it on top, or you come back in the same atmosphere and come out with a win, that makes it a whole lot better."

"I think the best thing about it is we learned from all the adversity we went through last season," DuBose said in his comfortable but stern Alabama drawl.

After Millsaps demonstrated everything it had learned, parents who had flown into to Texas and donned purple outfits walked on the field and hugged other parents' sons. Even as radio microphones were stuck in players' faces, Majors were pulled away from reporters to pose for pictures. Defensive backs grouped up. Sophomores got together. And of course, McCarty, Hanberry and Joseph's class – the one who remembered being kicked off to at the start of both halves during a freshman-year tail-whipping gathered together for a keepsake photograph.

After everything they'd been through, especially the profound downs following having your season-altering loss lead ESPN's SportsCenter and become an Internet sensation, they were entitled to a little glee.

"As hard as we tried not to talk about [the Miracle], as hard as we tried not to think about it," DuBose said, "because really when you get down to it, it has no effect on this particular game – just the fact that it happened, it's got to be gratifying to the players.

"It doesn't change anything about last year, it was a tremendous play on Trinity's part, a tremendous play for the game of football I thought," DuBose said. "It was tremendous for us in that we learned from it. I don't know if we would be here today had we not had the play and then responded the way we did."

Around the Nation blogged from the scene at Trinity on Saturday, in case you wondered what Game Day in San Antonio was like.

A couple tidbits I wouldn't want you to miss: If you're logged on from a cold Division III stronghold like Massachusetts, Ohio or Wisconsin – or merely had gotten dressed on the East Coast Saturday morning -- Trinity might as well have been a world away. Not only was it not long sleeve weather, it was nice enough to wear short sleeves on San Antonio's bustling riverwalk – in November, mind you – at 10 p.m.

Trinity had great spirit. A student-organized, parent-assisted tailgate featured the sights and sounds of game day. The best T-shirt I saw: "I caught a lateral against Millsaps." Cold, but clever.

Both teams were keeping with Division III spirit, being classy and thinking beyond just football. Both teams wore patches for muscular dystrophy research, and the Tigers hosted a reception beyond the end zone for 50 recently injured veterans on its 'military appreciation day.' The crowd could've settled down and actually listened to the serviceman's halftime speech, but that was my only beef on the entire trip.

Poll Positions

Millsaps was a logical mover this week, going up a spot after beating then-No. 14 Trinity. UW-Whitewater also beat then-No. 19 UW-Eau Claire, which helped the defending champions, 7-1, bump up to No. 5. Muhlenberg, a 31-25 winner against 4-4 Dickinson, dropped to No. 6 despite improving to 8-0. The Mules also got leapfrogged by Millsaps in the NCAA's regional rankings, since the Majors now have a win over regionally-ranked Trinity and an improved opponents' winning percentage. Muhlenberg also dropped to No. 3 in the AFCA poll.

That caps a tough week for a team that has yet to lose. They were probably a little overranked at No. 2 (AFCA) and No. 4 anyway, and they'll still very likely host a home game or two in the South Region bracket. They'll also be big Hobart and Ithaca fans, because if the Statesmen and Bombers can hand RPI and Cortland State their first losses, the Mules could be a No. 1 seed in a bracket full of East Region teams.

On the Top 25 thread on Post Patterns, an interesting oddity popped up for discussion: Why did Otterbein move little after beating then-ranked Capital 38-9 last week, then make much larger gains after a win over lackluster Marietta?

I explain it this way: I don't know if the movement in a particular poll is necessarily reflective of only that team's result that week. As silly as that might sound on the surface, it might take a few weeks for the move a team deserves to make to reflect in the poll, based on who else loses. Also, previous wins that looked very good might not look as good and for those voters who re-evaluate the whole thing, that could be a factor.

Sometimes it's a matter of spots opening up.

With respect to Otterbein, they were a big mover on my ballot because I had them 18 last week and my 11, 13, 15 and 17 lost. So while I had Case Western Reserve at 14 and they moved up to 12 with two spots in front of them opening up, I had Otterbein at 18 and they moved up to 13 with four teams in front of them losing.

In the overall poll, the Cardinals moved from No. 18 to No. 12.

So they gained more spots as a reflection of me revising my feelings on the teams that lost and slotting more teams behind them rather than as a reflection of their win over Marietta.

Perhaps the most underranked team in the country is Trinity (Conn.). Though the Bantams' 7-0 record this season is propped up by four wins by five points or fewer, they simply do not earn the respect of voters in a way that a similar team from a similar conference would. And we know why: It's a reflection of the NESCAC's self-imposed quarantine.

But if we are to be honest here, the NESCAC is not all that different from the SCIAC in terms of the student-athletes pursued and admitted. I'm sure there are athletes who have had to choose between Liberty League and NESCAC schools. If we are comfortable with 7-0 Occidental at No. 15 and 7-0 RPI at No. 20, can't we at least come up with more than 6 poll points (3 of them from me) for 7-0 Trinity?

Checking in on the Lambert Meadowlands Poll, an ECAC ranking of the top teams in the East, Cortland State edges Muhlenberg for the top spot on the list. Here's the full top 10, with D3football.com top 25 ranking, if applicable, in parentheses:

1. Cortland State (No. 7)
2. Muhlenberg (No. 6)
3. Wesley (No. 9)
4. RPI (No. 20)
5. Ithaca (No. 18)
6. Washington & Jefferson (No. 19)
7. Trinity
8. Salisbury (No. 17)
9. Montclair State (No. 21)
10. Hartwick

Award watch

There's about a month of fan voting left before Liberty Mutual narrows its Coach of the Year Award candidates down to five in Division III. After fan voting wraps up Dec. 6 (and although St. Norbert's Jim Purtill leads despite having one of his least-successful seasons in memory, the fans are doing a nice job with Trine's Matt Land, Huntingdon's Mike Turk, Willamette's Mark Speckman and DuBose rounding out the top five), finalists will be selected by Dec. 11, not long before the Stagg Bowl. There are 10 days to vote on finalists, and then the votes are tallied, giving the fans 20% of the final decision, the media selection committee (referred to below) 25% and the Hall of Fame Committee 55%. Our winner is announced Dec. 31.

Check out the selection committee. Yeah, that's right. Me, Pat, Clyde, Tipps, Kirk Herbstreit, Keith Jackson. You know, the usual crew.

Nominations for the Gagliardi Trophy are open until Nov. 19, so we won't have any news on finalists until after that. But fans will get their say just as they do with Liberty Mutual. Last season, on D3football.com, marked the first time the J-Club in Collegeville, Minn. offered the fans a collective Gagliardi Trophy vote, weighted the same as one vote from the 35-member selection committee.

Ten finalists should be announced around Thanksgiving, and four regional finalists are announced in December. The winner is introduced Dec. 18 in Salem, two days before the Stagg Bowl.

Mount Union quarterback Greg Micheli and Carnegie Mellon lineman Brian Freeman have already been awarded $18,000 postgraduate scholarships, but they have to wait until the National Football Foundation's Dec. 9 awards dinner to see if they've won The Draddy Trophy.

They are the last of 35 Division III players who were semifinalists for the award. There is one award for all divisions, however, and from the 164 semifinalists overall, Micheli and Freeman are among the final 15. They are up against cornerbacks from Harvard and Yale, and Division I stars Chase Daniel (Missouri), Graham Harrell (Texas Tech) and Brian Robiskie (Ohio State). A win doesn't just look good on the mantle; the scholarship increases to $25,000.

No. 1 seed watch

With two Saturdays to play before the selection committee puts together the 32-team playoff field, ATN looks at the possibilities over the next several items. Here, although playoff brackets are not officially selected by Division III region, they are bound by a directive to limit flights whenever possible. As most observers know, only trips shorter than 500 miles can be bussed.

Let's look at potential No. 1 seeds a little differently than we did last week.

Mount Union – North or East
Assuming a win against Otterbein, the Purple Raiders are a lock to be a top seed, play up to four home games and have a bracket named after them. It likely would be populated by North Region teams, but teams from the East are not out of the question if Cortland State and RPI stumble, and the Purple Raiders are preferred to Muhlenberg.

North Central – North
Only a top seed if Mount Union goes elsewhere. The Cardinals are geographically situated to be able to host West Region teams as well, but Willamette looks to be a strong enough candidate for No. 1 there. There perhaps is an opportunity in the Midwest for the committee to build a bracket around a deserving No. 1 seed with teams from mixed and matched regions. However, North Central closes with a pair of 6-2 teams in Augustana and Elmhurst, so undefeated is no given.

Wabash – North
A lot of what's true for North Central is true for the Little Giants too, and they could gain some ground in the regional rankings (currently fourth in the North) if North Central knocks Augustana out of the regional rankings and Otterbein loses.

Cortland State – East
Looks like a solid bet for a top seed if it wins out. Ithaca hopes to disrupt those plans in Week 11.

Muhlenberg – East or South
With Millsaps unlikely to lose and now ahead in the regional rankings, and with Trinity also unlikely to lose but likely to remain a regionally-ranked win for the Majors, Muhlenberg's best bet for a No. 1 seed might be as described above, with Cortland State and RPI losing.

Millsaps – South
Meet your first lock, boys and girls.

Willamette – West
Meet your second one. I suppose they could be a No. 2 seed in a bracket with North Central as a No. 1.

Occidental – West
If Willamette and North Central were both to stumble, they might be a No. 1. Or a one-loss UW-Whitewater might be.

RPI
You have to consider them with the No. 1 East team facing a stiff Week 11 test. But a move from another region seems more likely than the Engineers, whose schedule has not been tough, at No. 1.

If I had to pick today: Mount Union, Millsaps, Cortland State, Willamette.

Pool A watch

Five teams are in: Cortland State (NJAC), Millsaps (SCAC), Monmouth (MWC), Thomas More (PAC) and Wabash (NCAC).

Plymouth State and the NEFC Bogan champion will meet in Week 11 with the NEFC's automatic bid on the line.

Among the other 17 automatic bids, nine more could be clinched Saturday:
ASC: Mary Hardin-Baylor
CCIW: North Central
CC: Muhlenberg
HCAC: Franklin
LL: RPI
NWC: Willamette
SCIAC: Occidental
OAC: Mount Union or Otterbein
MIAA: Trine or Adrian

Won't know until Week 11:
Empire 8: Alfred, Hartwick, Ithaca, St. John Fisher still alive
IIAC: Buena Vista or Wartburg
MAC: Lycoming, Albright, three others at 3-2
MIAC: Four teams tied
NathCon: Aurora, Lakeland, Concordia (Wis.)
ODAC: Catholic, Hampden-Sydney
USAC: Ferrum, Christopher Newport
WIAC: UW-Stevens Point, UW-Whitewater

Second-place teams who could move into first by winning on Saturday:
Augustana (CCIW)
Hobart (LL)

Pool B watch

Wesley's win over Salisbury last Saturday made it a stronger contender for one of the three bids dedicated to non-AQ teams. Case Western Reserve remains a good bet for the other spot, while Huntingdon, LaGrange and Northwestern (Minn.) seem to be jockeying for the final spot. Salisbury fell out of the regional rankings with the loss, meaning it's tough to see the Gulls getting in without some help.

For more Pool B insight, visit Post Patterns.

Pool C watch

Again, 23 of the 32 playoff spots are determined automatically by the champions of Pool A conferences, the criteria listed here is used to select the three Pool B (independents and non-AQ conferences) and six Pool C (at-large) teams.

The competition for the at-large bids, which includes any Pool B overflow, is expected to be more difficult than most years, despite six one-loss teams (Cal Lutheran, Rose-Hulman, Salisbury, Wheaton, WPI and non-playoff-eligible Amherst) picking up their second loss in Week 9.

At this point, ATN doesn't see a two-loss team with a chance at one of the six spots with so many potential one-loss runners-up.

Of the 23 one-loss teams remaining, one has clinched a bid (Thomas More) and 11 more (Aurora, Franklin, Ferrum, Christopher Newport, Catholic, Plymouth State, Mary Hardin-Baylor, Hartwick, Ithaca, UW-Whitewater, UW-Stevens Point) are in the running for automatic bids. Two are in Pool B.

With Trinity (Texas) and Washington & Jefferson joining the crowd this week, these Pool C possibilities remain. For quick evaluation, their loss is in parentheses:
Mount Union/Otterbein loser
UW-Whitewater (UW-Stevens Point), if UW-SP earns the AQ
Hardin-Simmons (Mary Hardin-Baylor)
Redlands (Occidental)
Montclair State/Rowan winner (both lost to Cortland State)
Trinity (Millsaps)
Washington & Jefferson (Thomas More)
Ithaca (St. John Fisher)
Hartwick (Ithaca)
Hobart (Union)
Hampden-Sydney (Catholic)
Curry (Plymouth State)
Occidental
RPI
Trine

For additional Pool C insight, visit Post Patterns.

Rivalry watch

Wesley is the class of Route 13, RPI held on to the Dutchman’s Shoes and North Central retained the Little Brass Bell. St. John’s-St. Thomas, Wartburg-Luther, Coast Guard-Merchant Marine and Coe-Cornell are long in the books.

Although it’s not yet Week 11, there are some traditional season-makers on tap:

Williams at Amherst: Many seasons, the NESCAC title is on the line. Last year brought ESPN to town. This time around is neither, but the Ephs and Lord Jeffs will go right on about their business. If not Division III’s most intense rivalry, it is certainly the most storied: 122 games since 1881.

Trinity (Conn.) at Wesleyan: At 107 meetings since 1885, these Connecticut opponents and NESCAC rivals have been at it about as long as their teams have been active. Trinity leads the series 54-52-1. With the conference title already in hand, the Bantams simply want to finish a perfect season against the perfect opponent. The Cardinals, at 1-6, would love to spring an upset.

Bowdoin at Colby: The NESCAC rivals have played 119 times since 1892, tied for third most played. Along with Bates, who each school has played 111 times, they form the CBB rivalry, which once was the Maine State Championship Series and included the University of Maine. The Polar Bears and White Mules are each 3-4, but only Bowdoin has a chance at an outright CBB title with a win.

Kalamazoo at Albion: This MIAA rivalry gains little national attention, but at 121 meetings since 1896, it’s just a shade behind the most-played, Williams-Amherst. Albion leads the series 83-34-4 though.

Knox at Monmouth: Outscored 215-28 in the past five meetings with the Scots and at 3-6 this season, perhaps the Prairie Fire’s best hope is that playoff-bound Monmouth will spend Saturday preening in front of its home crowd instead of playing its best football game. The Bronze Turkey game is for the third most-played rivalry at 119 games, with the Scots leading the series 59-50-10.

Pomona-Pitzer at Occidental: At 109 meetings since 1895, it is the West’s oldest rivalry. The Drum goes to the game’s victor, but it’s not the only tradition set for this week’s game. The Tigers need the win to maintain a chance at being the SCIAC’s playoff representative.

Discuss the history of rivalries and jaw about this year’s games on Post Patterns’ Division III rivalries thread.

Five games to watch

No. 1 Mount Union (8-0, 7-0 OAC) at No. 12 Otterbein (8-0, 7-0): The Cardinals are off to the best start in school history but haven’t beaten the Purple Raiders since 1977. If that weren’t enough, the winner clinches the conference title and a playoff berth. Mount Union leads Division III in total offense and total defense; its stars you know. Otterbein quarterback Jack Rafferty and his teammates have a chance to make names for themselves nationally.

Augustana (6-2, 4-1 CCIW) at No. 2 North Central (5-0, 8-0): The Vikings are a dangerous test for the Cardinals, with their only path to the playoffs through the conference title and automatic bid. The teams had wildly differing results against Wheaton (Augustana lost 26-14, North Central won 44-21), but also against Carthage (North Central won 31-24, Augustana won 40-16 two weeks ago). With the Vikings riding high and perhaps figuring out the spread after scoring 92 points the past two weeks, confidence should not be a problem. The Vikings also boast the nation’s No. 2 scoring defense. The Cardinals have quite a bit to lose and need their best effort on their home turf.

Hobart (6-1, 4-1 LL) at No. 22 RPI (7-0, 5-0): The Engineers could clinch the Liberty League title and a playoff spot with a win; The Statesmen could send them to the back of the Pool C pack. Hobart wouldn’t clinch with a win though, they could take the lead and give it back next week. Still, this is all less confusing than last year’s four-way tie in the final weeks. RPI senior QB Jimmy Robertson has thrown 15 touchdown passes and two interceptions all year, but Hobart freshman Drake Woodard has six picks and could be a problem.

Rowan (7-1, 6-1 NJAC) at No. 23 Montclair State (7-1, 6-1): These rivals have something to battle for yet again. After early season, one-touchdown losses to Cortland State, which has clinched the NJAC championship and automatic bid, the Profs and Red Hawks have stayed in contention for an at-large spot. Saturday brings the moment of truth, since one will pick up its second loss. Points could be hard to come by. Rowan ranks in the nation’s top 10 in rushing defense, sacks, tackles for loss and turnover margin. Montclair State, led by linebacker Cornell Hunt, is top 20 in rushing defense, total defense and scoring defense.

No. 25 Trine (8-0, 5-0 MIAA) at Adrian (7-1, 4-0): The Thunder have survived two one-point wins to get here; The Bulldogs have reeled off seven straight wins since a season-opening, 34-14 loss to Capital. One team clinches the title, the other is likely a candidate for "nice season, but ..." Look for the key plays in the game to be made through the air, as Adrian is the nation’s second-stingiest rushing defense and Trine is the fourth.

Also keep an eye on: Carnegie Mellon at No. 13 Case Western Reserve, Illinois Wesleyan at No. 15 Wheaton, No. 17 UW-Stevens Point at No. 19 UW-Eau Claire, No. 21 Ithaca at Alfred, N.C. Wesleyan at Ferrum, Carleton at Concordia-Moorhead.

Check Friday morning's Daily Dose for Pat, Keith and Gordon Mann’s ‘Triple Take' primer on Week 9’s games.

Who are those guys?

Tracking Division III against competition from other classifications:

vs. Division I, FCS (0-0 in Week 9, 4-5 in 2008)
None

vs. Division II (0-0 in Week 9, 3-5 in 2008)
Wesley at Lake Erie
Western Oregon at Linfield

vs. NAIA (0-1 in Week 9, 26-13 in 2008)
Minn.-Morris at Waldorf
East Texas Baptist at Azusa Pacific

Also:
Crown at Trinity Bible
Williamson Trade at Gallaudet

The Press Box

Corrections: Initial versions of this column misstated the clinching scenarios in the IIAC and SCIAC. Occidental can clinch the SCIAC with a win in either of its final two games. Buena Vista can clinch the IIAC by winning out; Wartburg could win with a Buena Vista loss. Also, Otterbein's ranking was originally misstated. They are ranked 12th.

Reader feedback the past few weeks has been very good. Around the Nation encourages your opinions on the playoff picture, moments to remember for the year-in-review and other selected topics linked throughout the column. Readers can always get a response by posting on Around the Nation's running thread on Post Patterns (under general football). E-mail correspondence can be directed to Keith@D3football.com or submitted with our feedback form.

Sports Information Directors: Around the Nation is interested in contacting Division III's all-time and single-season leading rushers and passers to ask them one brief question for a future column. Any help you can provide in reaching Mount Union's Chuck Moore and Dan Pugh, Grove City's R.J. Bowers, Marietta's Dante Brown, Coe's Carey Bender, Simpson's Ricky Gales, Redlands' Danny Ragsdale, Westminster's Justin Peery, etc., would be appreciated.

Sports Information Directors: To contact Keith McMillan, use Keith@D3football.com, or snail mail to D3football.com, 13055 Carolyn Forest Dr., Woodbridge, Va., 22192.

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Ryan Tipps

Ryan is D3football.com's Senior Editor and begins as National Columnist in fall 2014. He was the Around the Mid-Atlantic Columnist from 2007 to 2011; has worked on all but one of the preseason Kickoff publications; has done game-day writing and photography and the pregame broadcast at the championship Stagg Bowl in Salem for almost a decade; and has taken photos at the Final Four for D3hoops.com. He's also on the selection staff for the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year award.

2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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