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D-III stacking up against the scholarship squads

More news about: Maryville (Tenn.) | UW-Oshkosh | Wesley
Trenton Shuler scored two touchdowns, the second with 9:39 left in the game to provide the winning margin against Division I-FCS East Tennessee State.
Maryville athletics photo

Nobody in Division III plays because of an athletic scholarship. And that’s just fine with us.

But year after year, a handful of D-III institutions line up on the field against teams outside of Division III. Those unfamiliar opponents often hail from NAIA institutions and, occasionally, from Division I-FCS.

The overall small-college record against Division I schools in the past decade doesn’t favor the little guys, nor would we expect it to. But talk as much as you want about keeping it close or simply going for the “moral victory,” that’s not what’s on the mind of D-III athletes when they step into the larger stadiums of Division I.

To his players before their game against East Tennessee State, Maryville coach Shaun Hayes said, “We’re going there to win it. I wanted to be up front and honest with them.”

The Scots put up the only second-half points of last week’s game, a 35-yard catch-and-run from Evan Pittenger to Trenton Shuler, who found the end zone for the game-winning score.

“After that win, it was a special feeling for our guys,” Hayes said. “It was a true testament of when you work hard and invest time in each other and you build relationships, good things happen.”

Hayes was on the sideline opposite his former boss, Mike Rader. Rader, an ETSU grad and recent Maryville head coach, took a job this season with his alma mater as a wide receivers coach. When he found out a couple of years ago that ETSU was resurrecting its football program for the first time since 2003, he wanted to get Maryville on the inaugural schedule.

More often than not, however, teams that schedule games with non-Division III opponents aren’t doing so by choice but rather by necessity.

That’s the case with teams like Wesley and UW-Oshkosh in recent years. Had those coaching staffs not looked beyond the division, then they would have had to shortchange players on their college football experience.

Wesley is in its first season as part of the NJAC, but it had spent four seasons as an independent after the ACFC disbanded in 2010. In that four-year span, Wesley played 15 regular-season games against opponents outside of Division III. Among the most notable were the two Division I-FCS teams: Charlotte in 2013 and 2014 and Charleston Southern in 2011.

The Wolverines went 2-1 against those opponents and narrowly missed sweeping their big-school opponents amid a 38-33 score last season.

Wesley has long been a playoff-caliber team and has been among the most dominant in Division III. During the independent years, coach Mike Drass said it was difficult finding D-III opponents to schedule against his team. But while Wesley was forced into some matchup because of the need to fill the schedule, Drass said playing a team like Charlotte -- and giving Wesley a chance to test itself -- “was an opportunity.”

“It was exciting for us. There was no pregame speech needed for that one,” he said.

Wesley played in front of almost 16,000 people each year against Charlotte, and Drass notes that everything about the experience was first-class.

“Stepping on the field and playing with them is something that I will remember as a coach because our kids really played up to a higher level against a team” that also squared off against the likes of Coastal Carolina, James Madison and other nationally recognized programs, Drass said.

Even though scheduling difficulties force some teams into these unusual games, the appreciation for the experience is a common theme.

Coach Pat Cerroni took UW-Oshkosh to Division I-FCS South Dakota State last season, where the Titans played in front of nearly 14,000 people. The result was a 41-3 loss but also a lasting memory.

“Of all of the games, high school and college, that I’ve coached that that was probably the greatest experience I’ve ever had as a coach,” Cerroni said. “And I think our players, even though I think they were a little nervous about it, every one of them said that it was pretty cool. It was a tremendous experience.”

Oshkosh had a deep playoff run in 2012, and ever since then, the team has found itself struggling to fill its schedule in Division III. Cerroni said he and his school’s administration have contacted D-III coaches and been flatly told “no” about scheduling against the Titans.

Oshkosh, in the football-heavy Midwest, was feeling isolated.

“Sometimes you’re looking to get a win. Sometimes you’re just looking to get a game. In our situation, it’s just about getting games now,” Cerroni said. “It’s not about wins and losses in nonconference. We’re just trying to get games so we don’t short our athletes.”

Sometimes a game vs. a D-I FCS team is borne out of necessity, just to try to get to 10 games.
UW-Oshkosh file photo

Last season was the most difficult. The Titans started the season against two NAIA schools before playing South Dakota State. Oshkosh was 0-3 going into conference play. Cerroni said he was worried because football is as much a game of confidence as anything else.

Yet the Titans found their stride and went 6-1 in conference play, including a 30-27 win over No. 15 ranked UW-Platteville to finish the season.

“Fortunately our players bucked up and understood what we were trying to do in getting ready for conference play. It worked out,” said Cerroni, who has coached the program for about a decade. “But it doesn’t always work for you. You can get injured; you can pretty much ruin your entire season doing something like that. So it’s not something I’m looking to do all the time. This year, we played one NAIA school; next year I’m sure we’re going to have to play two again.”

Oshkosh has the benefit of potentially making it to the playoffs through the WIAC’s automatic qualifier. Win the conference, and a playoff spot is guaranteed.

“I learned a long time ago that to get into the playoffs, you have to win the league. So that’s how I do it,” Cerroni said.

Maryville has the same luxury. Hayes notes that the at-large selection process is outside his control. He can help control the schedule, but he can’t control how his team’s data is interpreted by the selection committee.

And he said he doesn’t want to caught up in the “what ifs” of the process. Win the conference, and the season continues for another week, he said.

During Wesley’s years as an independent, Drass kept a close eye on how his team stacked up in the Pool B and Pool C process. He said that Wesley sought out the toughest schedule it could put together so that even with only the six or seven Division III games they played, their strength of schedule numbers looked impressive. In 2012, for example, the Wolverines started the season against East Texas Baptist, Salisbury, Mary Hardin-Baylor and Louisiana College. Two of those teams were Top 10 programs.

The playoff implications of their schedule were “a constant concern for us,” Drass said.

Though things change year to year as teams go up and down and conferences realign, some D-III programs will continue to fill their schedules with teams outside the division -- despite there being a record number 247 football-playing members in Division III.

With ETSU joining a Division I conference, Maryville doesn’t have the team on the schedule for next year. But even if they did, the approach and the drive to win wouldn’t change.

“There’s no secrets in this game. It doesn’t matter what level. There’s nothing magical about it,” Hayes said. “It’s the team that outworks the other team. It’s the team that is closer. It’s the team that out-executes the other team. And nine times out of 10, the team that plays as hard as they can possibly play actually wins football games.”

Drass said of his times playing against Charlotte: “I don’t know how many times you get to take your team on the field against that type of competition, and be given that experience. It was an experience, and it ended up being a great experience for us even though we lost the second game. I think our kids played hard and walked away from there representing Wesley College and Division III in a proud fashion.”

Heated rivalries

I love a good rivalry.

Yet that statement doesn’t mean as much if you take out the word “good.” Heck, I’d argue it doesn’t mean anything at all without that word.

A rivalry is most significant when the winners are challenged to perform well. Sure, you might loathe the very ground that your opponent walks on, but there has to be something more to the victory, something earned, to make it feel perfect.

I am a product of Wabash, as is my father. The Monon Bell rivalry with DePauw is considered one of the most intense in all of college football, and I have known it in some capacity almost my whole life.

The rivalry dates to 1890 and prior to the current stretch of six straight Wabash victories, the overall series was tied at 53-53-9. Even with the recent Little Giant surge, the balance is a big part of what makes the rivalry special, what makes winning the matchup deeply gratifying.

I relate that background and sentiment only because it’s painful to see rivalries, young and old ones, be overwhelmingly one-sided -- or in the case of Thomas More and Mount St. Joseph, die off completely.

While many rivalry games take place in the final week of the regular season, several have already logged their 60 minutes. The Gate City Soup Bowl (the event is named that because people who bring canned goods for charity can get their gate fee waived), Secretaries Cup, Stagg Hat Trophy, Chowder Bowl, Book of Knowledge and Coe-Cornell contests are among those that have taken place in 2015.

The number of rivalries across the country are too numerous to give a shout out to them all, but here’s a list of some of the big ones to keep your eyes on. Don’t hesitate to include more (both already completed and upcoming) in the comments below.

Admiral’s Cup (Massachusetts Maritime at Maine Maritime), Sept. 19
Tommie-Johnnie Game (St. John’s at St. Thomas), Sept. 26
Conestoga Wagon (Dickinson at Franklin and Marshall), Oct. 3
Little Brass Bell (Wheaton at North Central), Oct. 24
Bronze Turkey (Monmouth at Knox), Nov. 7
Little Brown Bucket (Dickinson at Gettysburg), Nov. 7
Route 13 Rivalry (Salisbury at Wesley), Nov. 7
Academic Bowl (Case Western Reserve at Carnegie Mellon), Nov. 14
Biggest Little Game in the America (Amherst at Williams), Nov. 14
Cortaca Jug (Ithaca at Cortland State), Nov. 14
Dutchman’s Shoes (RPI at Union), Nov. 14
Monon Bell Classic (DePauw at Wabash), Nov. 14
Regents Cup (Frostburg State at Salisbury), Nov. 14
The Game (Hampden-Sydney at Randolph-Macon), Nov. 14

Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to D3football.com since 2007 and is in his second season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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