/columns/around-the-nation/2017/hot-starts-unlikely-unbeatens

Hot starts create unlikely unbeatens

K.J. Pretty hauls in a catch that lives up to his name in a come-from-behind win vs. McDaniel. The Diplomats are 4-0.
Franklin & Marshall athletics photo
 

By Adam Turer
D3sports.com

Reaching November goals is often impossible without a strong September.

As we head into the final weekend of the season’s first month, 39 teams sit at either 3-0 or 4-0. Many are the usual suspects, including 18 teams ranked in the latest Top 25 poll. Others are off to more historic starts.

Buffalo State is 3-0 for the first time since 1999. Brockport is 4-0 for the first time since 2003. Knox hasn’t started a season 3-0 since 2002. Frostburg State last started 4-0 in 1999. After an 0-8 campaign in 2016, Williams is off to a 2-0 start in the NESCAC.

Five conferences have three teams off to 3-0 or 4-0 starts — the American Southwest, Centennial, Empire 8, Presidents’, and the WIAC, which also has a pair of ranked 2-0 teams. The NCAC has four teams off to perfect 3-0 starts.

It takes great preparation, teamwork, and a little bit of luck to get this far into the season without a loss.

“We’re just really fortunate that the ball’s been bouncing our way. We’ve had 10 seniors that were part of our first real recruiting class here. They’re starting to see the fruits of our building process,” said Knox coach Damon Tomeo. “It’s been a tremendous thing to be a part of. We just try to be better today than we were yesterday.”

The number of perfect teams is guaranteed to be slashed following this weekend’s action. The following matchups feature teams that have yet to be defeated in 2017: Hardin-Simmons at East Texas Baptist, UW-Stout at UW-Platteville, Johns Hopkins at Ursinus, Denison at Wittenberg, and Buffalo State at Alfred.

There is no surefire key to a hot start. These 39 teams have gone about their successful September in a variety of ways.

Franklin & Marshall has just 11 seniors on the roster and was missing six starters on Saturday. That didn’t stop the Diplomats from holding off a late Susquehanna rally to improve to 4-0.

“We’ve got a resilient group, that’s for sure. We try and present that next-man-up mentality. Our kids play for each other, they’re playing hard, and they’re playing together,” said Dips coach John Troxell. “We’ve got a lot of grit. When you’re behind or things are tough, you know someone’s going to step up and make a play.”

Centennial Conference foe Ursinus has also been in this position before, starting 5-0 in both 2013 and 2014. The Bears were just 2-8 last season but are also 4-0 heading into this weekend’s showdown with Johns Hopkins. Maturation has led to more aggressive play on both sides of the ball.  

Stacey Gardner
Sophomore running back Stacey Gardner has averaged 124.3 yards per game in Ursinus' 4-0 start.
Ursinus athletics photo by David Morgan, Stylish Images

“We knew we had some good returning talent, particularly freshmen that were going to be sophomores. The emergence of our run game has exceeded expectations a little bit,” said Bears coach Peter Gallagher. “Our defense has been pretty opportunistic (11 takeaways). If you get the ball back and add extra possessions for your offense, things usually end up going well.”

Every coach spoke to his team’s experience. The Prairie Fire have benefitted from a senior quarterback, Matt McCaffrey, who now has 32 career starts under his belt. His leadership and development has helped his teammates’ build bonds that have been the key to Knox’s success.

“The foundation of every relationship in my opinion is trust,” said Tomeo, now in his fifth season leading the program. “There’s definitely an improved confidence in our guys. I think what it comes down to now is the trust they have in each other. Those relationships really allowed the foundation to be laid in the program.”

It’s just one game, but sometimes that first weekend can set the tone for an entire season. Heidelberg had dropped its season opener each of the past two years. Defeating Olivet on the road in the 2017 opener gave the Student Princes a boost that propelled them into the always grueling OAC slate.

“That first win really meant everything to our season. We hadn’t won our Week 1 game in three years,” said Student Princes coach Scott Donaldson. “No. 1, it gives your guys a lot of confidence, especially going into our bye week. It gave us so much confidence going into the OAC schedule. Now you can find things to build off of, but you have the confidence of that first win under your belt.”

The confidence skyrocketed after Saturday’s win over John Carroll catapulted the Student Princes to 3-0 and a Top 25 ranking. A home game against Mount Union looms on Oct. 7. This Saturday, Heidelberg travels to Muskingum, the definition of a trap game, according to Donaldson. All of these teams must learn how to handle their early-season success, and the new challenges that come with it.

“The toughest thing is you have to keep the team focused. I’m blessed with an unbelievable staff. They’re all OAC veterans. They know the gauntlet week in and week out,” said Donaldson. “You can’t sleep on anybody. It takes an extra importance now after a big win. You go from the hunters to the hunted real quick. Saturday was a great win for us, but now there’s a target on our backs.”  

Some coaches have even changed their strategies in an attempt to sustain early season success. Troxell emphasized his team’s workload in the offseason with a balanced approach to in-season preparation.

“The biggest thing for us is if we stay healthy, we’ve got a pretty good chance,” said Troxell. “We’ve had to really think about the way that we practice with our kids to make sure we get them to Saturdays. We’re spending more time doing film and preparing harder mentally than the physical part of it.”

The Dips started last season 6-1 before finishing 7-4. They started 4-0 in 2015 before finishing 6-4.

“We changed our lifting routine in-season to make sure we don’t wear kids down,” said Troxell. “We’re focusing on keeping guys fresh and healthy.”

Early season success requires chemistry and breeds confidence. The teams that have faith in each other and their coaching staff are able to weather adversity and find ways to win.

“It’s certainly a mental game. To have confidence, to start believing in plays on offense and defense and believe that things are going to work out is a huge part of this game,” said Gallagher. “Our kids have that now, but they’ve remained humble and understand that the grind is just beginning.”

“You never see anybody on one side of the ball or the other pointing the finger,” said Troxell. “Everybody talks about success being great chemistry. This team has great chemistry. The bonds these kids have built are starting to show.”

The bonds begin to form as soon as freshmen arrive on campus. That requires veteran leadership. For programs that have struggled in recent years, it may take some time to reach the point where upperclassmen are ready to show the ropes to the rookies and get them up to speed right away. That’s what Tomeo is starting to see at Knox.

“We saw this shift probably over two years ago in the offseason. Just seeing the guys’ involvement in lifting, then in spring ball. It was another step forward, another step forward,” said the Prairie Fire coach. “We came into camp, our seniors wrapped their arms around the freshmen, and that helped us grow even more. We keep trying to bring in a tremendous group of high-character freshmen with great work ethic. If we can keep doing that, we’ll be on the right path.”

Players’ Corner

Eric Haverstock As part of my attempt to rekindle a love for football, I’ll be reaching out to players all season long to give them space to explain why they love the game. Last week, I featured a Grove City player, and the Wolverines went on to snap a 33-game losing streak. So, let’s see if there’s some mojo in the Players’ Corner. This week, we hear from Howard Payne junior H-back Eric Haverstock, whose Yellow Jackets are trying to snap a 15-game losing skid.

I fell in love with football during my junior year of high school. I saw how the little things that you work on in football matter the most, and I realized how that carries over into life. So I fell in love with the idea that I'm learning things about life in a sport that I'm good at.

I still love football because I see how it is making me into the man I need to be in the future.

The Yellow Jackets will try to snap their streak on Saturday at Belhaven.

If you or someone you know would like to be featured in Players’ Corner this year, please reach out to me at any time.

What do you know? Do you know things? Let's find out!

There are so many worthy stories to be told and I can’t find them all on my own. Please share with me those stories that make you passionate about Division III football. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at adam.turer@d3sports.com. Thanks for reading!

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.

Previous Columns

November 16, 2017
Playoff picks, surprises and disappointments
Who are the teams that will surprise in this year's playoffs? Who will be the disappointments? And...
November 12, 2017
Playing up to expectations
Our projections and predictions were impressive. Let's take a look back at the teams we thought...
November 9, 2017
End of a long road
Barry Streeter ends his 39-year head-coaching career with his final game on Saturday, and Regis...
November 5, 2017
Going out on a high note
Dozens of seniors played their final college football game yesterday. Many had to balance the sting...
November 2, 2017
Cru's success is infectious
Mary Hardin-Baylor's 2016 national title may well have lit a fire under the rest of the Crusaders'...
October 29, 2017
Built for the stretch run
Some programs had backloaded schedules this year. These final few weeks are their time to prove...
October 26, 2017
Surviving the quick change
There were quite a few late-season coaching changes, and it meant an end to one program as well as a...
October 22, 2017
Let's have a breakdown together
Three games on Saturday provided clarity in the playoff picture. There is still much to be decided...
October 19, 2017
No longer beasts, East trying to break back through
No East Region team has finished the season in Salem since 1999, and it has been 10 years since an...
October 15, 2017
Occidental not giving up yet
The Tigers cancelled yet another home game, this time on homecoming weekend. Emotions are running...
October 12, 2017
Bruins' long road to respect
Seven-plus years of planning, four-plus years of practice and three-plus years of competition have...
October 8, 2017
Picks and polls
Interceptions won some games and clinched others across Division III this weekend. Adam Turer looks...
October 5, 2017
Re-ranking the conferences in 2017
When conference memberships shift as much as they have this year, ranking the conferences becomes an...
October 1, 2017
Through the eyes of the quarterback
What is it like to pass for over 500 yards in a game, or over 1,400 yards through four games? Few...
September 28, 2017
Hot starts create unlikely unbeatens
As we head into the final weekend of the season’s first month, 39 teams sit at either 3-0 or...
September 24, 2017
An emotional week
Loss, scandal, history, and catharsis. This week had everything. From Wooster honoring their...
September 21, 2017
Rivalry showdown takes center field
Don't let the unique location or record-breaking attendance numbers distract you. The Tommie-Johnnie...
September 17, 2017
Feeding the beasts
Several teams remained undefeated by following a familiar formula: get the ball in your best...
September 14, 2017
Back from hiatus
Three former All-Region players spent 2016 on the sidelines. One was actually on the sidelines after...
September 10, 2017
How to pull off an upset
It takes aggression. Fourth downs, fake punts, and two-point conversions all factored into the...
September 7, 2017
Digging in for Duke
Muhlenberg head coach Mike Donnelly has been forced to the sidelines this year as he fights acute...
September 3, 2017
Remembering how to win again
Week One did not disappoint. Snap Judgments returns, getting you caught up on the Top 25 upsets,...
August 31, 2017
This season signifies one last shot at Salem
If you've never been to Salem for the Stagg Bowl, 2017 will be your last chance, at least for a...
December 20, 2016
Year in review: The year everything changed
We had a brand-new Division III national champion for the first time since 2007. Mount Union lost a...
November 17, 2016
Playoff picks, surprises, disappointments
Around the Nation has assembled a team of prognosticators for an annual look at who might surprise...
November 13, 2016
Snap Judgments: Hellos and goodbyes
Today is going to be bittersweet for many. We take a look at the teams that announced their arrival...
November 10, 2016
Out of the darkness, light
Sometimes, things don’t go your way. Sometimes, your highest expectations are crushed by...
 • More Division III football news releases

Other Columnists