November 21, 2013

New life for St. John Fisher

More news about: St. John Fisher
St. John Fisher athletics photo

Cody Miller sat anxiously, surrounded by a handful of teammates and coaches. Fingers tapped and feet bounced in nervous anticipation. They were all waiting to hear the same thing.

When St. John Fisher was finally announced as one of the five Pool C selections for the NCAA playoffs, that nervous energy quickly turned to passionate excitement. Other players, many watching in dorm rooms or off-campus houses, were locked in on the selection show, too.

"Especially as a senior on the team, you're just thrilled to have one more chance, one more opportunity to play," Miller said.

After a one-year absence, St. John Fisher is back in the playoff field. And, just like they were in 2011, the Cardinals are a road underdog in the first round.

The Cardinals drew OAC runner-up John Carroll, the ninth-ranked team in the final D3football.com Top 25 poll of the regular season. The Blue Streaks, who gave No. 1 Mount Union one of its toughest tests of the season in a 42-34 loss last weekend, rank third nationally in total defense (224.8 yards per game) and first in scoring defense (7.5 points allowed per game).

This is, undoubtedly, the Cardinals' toughest test of the season. But they don't need to be reminded of that -- in their minds, they've been in the playoffs since Oct. 26.

"Ever since our second loss, realistically, every game has been do-or-die for us," Miller said.

St. John Fisher lost to eventual Empire 8 champion Ithaca, 25-22, on Oct. 26, its second loss in as many weeks after a 42-35 loss to Salisbury on Oct. 19. After opening the season with five straight wins, St. John Fisher faced a crucial three-game stretch against Utica, Buffalo State and Alfred to end the season.

The Cardinals punctuated a 3-0 showing in that stretch with a 48-13 rout of Alfred in the annual Courage Bowl. Among St. John Fisher's eight wins were strong non-conference victories over playoff-bound Washington and Jefferson, Cortland State and Otterbein. Those wins, combined with a 5-2 mark in a strong Empire 8, looked solid on the Cardinals' postseason resume come selection time.

"That's where everybody wants to be," Vosburgh said. "They want to be in that tournament. There's only 32 teams and there's, what, 242 Division III schools, so [it's] a nice place to be in November, playing in that field of 32."

The Cardinals are in the NCAA playoffs for the fifth team in school history, all of which have come since 2004. Reaching the playoffs has become an expectation in the program, but, given the team's history in the postseason, it seems that simply reaching the playoff field isn't enough.

St. John Fisher has won at least one game in each of its previous four playoff trips, including a trip to the quarterfinals in 2011, a run that featured a number of players still on the team.

"We remember the experience," Miller said. "We remember the feelings of winning those games as the underdog against Johns Hopkins and [Delaware] Valley."

John Carroll's defense ranks among the best in the country, but its offense isn't far behind. Junior quarterback Mark Myers (3,032 yards, 27 TDs, 8 INTs) directs an attack that's putting up 44.5 points per game, good for 10th nationally.

"Their quarterback may be the best Division III quarterback I've ever seen," Vosburgh said of the 6-foot-5, strong-armed Myers. "He's really good."

Myers' counterpart, St. John Fisher senior Tyler Fenti, has had a strong season in his own regard, throwing for 2,409 yards and 20 touchdowns against eight interceptions in nine starts. Fenti, who battled injuries for most of his first three seasons with the Cardinals, has come into his own in his first season as the full-time starter.

"We think he's progressing week by week and getting better," Vosburgh said. "He can just make plays."

Miller, a main ball carrier for the Cardinals since 2011, has again been a key cog this season, rushing for 904 yards and 15 touchdowns. And the Cardinals' defense, anchored by senior linemen Mason Judd and Cody Foster, junior inside linebacker Sean Preish (89 tackles, 7 sacks) and senior cornerback Ryan Seymour, has played particularly well of late.

St. John Fisher will have to be sharp across the board to defeat John Carroll. But now, unlike in 2011, many of the team's key players know what to expect in a first-round road game.

"If you make the tournament, you can expect that you're going to play a very good football team, especially if it's an at-large team," Vosburgh said. "If it's an at-large team, they were chosen because they were so good."

Vosburgh said the team will depart by bus Friday morning for the roughly four and a half hour ride to University Heights, Ohio. Interestingly enough, that won't come close to eclipsing the Cardinals' longest road trip of the season -- the nine-hour trip down to Salisbury holds that title.

St. John Fisher faced rides of six hours (Johns Hopkins) and five hours (Delaware Valley) in the 2011 playoffs, so again, the Cardinals will draw from experience.

The hope is that, two years later, history repeats itself.

Playoff reaction: Three of five East teams earn home games

There weren't any surprises when the playoff bracket was released Sunday. Hobart (Liberty League), Ithaca (Empire 8), Lebanon Valley (MAC) and Rowan (NJAC) had all earned automatic bids from their conference championships. St. John Fisher, which finished 8-2 overall, was a logical Pool C candidate after its rout of Alfred in the regular-season finale. Three of the four conference winners will host first-round matchups, while Fisher will also take to the road. Here's a quick breakdown of each game:

Mary Hardin-Baylor bracket

Gallaudet (9-1) at Hobart (9-0), noon, Saturday: Hobart posted a perfect regular-season record for the second straight season en route to its third consecutive Liberty League title. The Statesmen, who advanced to the NCAA quarterfinals a year ago, should be favored against ECFC champion Gallaudet, which is making its first NCAA postseason appearance in program history. The upstart Bison shouldn't be underestimated, of course. They boast the fourth-best rushing attack in the nation (316.7 yards per game) behind a potent triple-option system. Hobart utilizes a more balanced offense, but still leans heavily on senior running back Steven Webb (1,208 yards, 17 TDs). Both teams rank among the top 25 nationally in scoring defense, so this doesn't figure to be a shootout. Hobart holds a decided advantage in playoff experience, however. That figures to be the key factor in this one.

St. John Fisher (8-2) at John Carroll (9-1), noon, Saturday: The Cardinals will head out to University Heights, Ohio for their first-round matchup against John Carroll, a team that lost by a touchdown to No. 1 Mount Union this past weekend. The Blue Streaks boast the nation's top scoring defense (7.5 points per game) and have shut out four opponents. Until their 42-34 loss to Mount Union, the Blue Streaks had held every opponent to nine points or less. St. John Fisher, of course, has been in survival mode after falling to 5-2 in late October. The Cardinals rattled off three straight wins to grab a Pool C bid. And in 2011, the last time St. John Fisher qualified for the playoffs, it ran two games on the road before falling to St. Thomas in the quarterfinals.

Endicott (8-2) at Rowan (8-2), noon, Saturday: Rowan will rarely blow you away with big-time statistics, but the Profs just keep winning. The team hasn't lost since a disappointing 41-21 loss to Morrisville State back on Oct. 12. Since that loss, Rowan has strung together five straight wins, including a 24-17 victory against playoff-bound Wesley. Rowan and Endicott, out of the New England Football Conference, have never met. Endicott has only had a football program for 11 seasons, but this is its second playoff berth in the last four seasons (2010). Rowan lost in the first round to Salisbury last season, but boasts an impressive 16-2 home record in its NCAA playoff history. Rowan, because of the home field, seems like the smart pick.

Mount Union bracket

Framingham State (9-1) at Ithaca (8-2), noon, Saturday: Ithaca is coming off a tough loss to rival Cortland State, but its still in the midst of its finest season since 2008. The Bombers have never faced Framingham State, but the Rams are a program on the rise, having qualified for the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. Ithaca is battle-tested after getting through the gauntlet that is the Empire 8. Teams from the E8 have done well traditionally against non-conference opponents, and in the playoffs. Backup quarterback Tom Dempsey has filled in admirably for senior captain Phil Neumann, but this game should come down to the ground game. Melikke Van Alstyne (1,500 rushing yards, 18 TDs) is a workhorse back in every sense of the term. He will be featured heavily by the Rams. Ithaca can't let him beat them.

Lebanon Valley (8-2) at Wittenberg (9-1), noon, Saturday: This is a tough draw for MAC champion Lebanon Valley, which is making its first-ever NCAA playoff appearance. Wittenberg, which consistently ranked among the top 25 teams this season in D3football.com's poll, is making its 16th appearance in the tournament, so the experience advantage goes to the Tigers. Both of Lebanon Valley's two losses this season came on the road (Widener, Albright), while Wittenberg has won all five of its home games. The Tigers are led by senior quarterback Reed Florence, who has combined for more 3,000 total yards and 39 total touchdowns this season. If the Flying Dutchmen can slow him down, they will have a chance. But Florence excels at taking care of the ball, as evidenced by his paltry six interceptions this season. Lebanon Valley must rely heavily on the ground duo of Austin Hartman (878 yards, 13 TDs) and Brendan Irving (733 yards, 7 TDs) to eat up clock and keep the Wittenberg offense off the field.

ECAC slate: Alfred to host Cortland State

Alfred and Cortland State, two teams that began the season with NCAA playoff aspirations, will instead meet in the ECAC North Central Bowl Championship on Saturday. Alfred was completely dominated by St. John Fisher in the regular-season finale, while Cortland forced a late turnover against Ithaca to seal its fourth straight Cortaca Jug victory. East teams are featured in four of the other five ECAC games this Saturday.

Other ECAC games featuring East teams:
Northwest Bowl Championship: Waynesburg (7-3) at Brockport State (7-3), noon, Saturday

Southeast Bowl Championship: Franklin and Marshall (6-4) at Delaware Valley (7-3), noon, Saturday

Southwest Bowl Championship: Juniata (7-3) at Albright (7-3), 1 p.m., Saturday

South Atlantic Bowl Championship: Salisbury (6-4) at Muhlenberg (8-2), 1 p.m., Saturday

Top 25: St. John Fisher cracks rankings

St. John Fisher, a Pool C choice in the NCAA playoffs, jumped back into the D3football.com Top 25 poll this week, ranking No. 25.

Hobart slipped one spot to No. 8, while Ithaca fell four notches to No. 24.

Rowan and Lebanon Valley, two other playoff-bound teams, both received votes. 

Quick hits

John Dunbar rushed for 109 yards and four touchdowns in Salisbury's 70-14 rout of rival Frostburg State in the Regents Cup. ... Maurice Irby rushed for 207 yards and a pair of scores, and St. Lawrence's defense forced six fumbles in a 31-0 win over Merchant Marine. ... Tyler Jenny passed for 207 yards and three scores as Lycoming closed out its regular season with a 36-20 victory over Stevenson. ... Dan Andrews piled up 244 yards and two TDs on the ground as Brockport State defeated Morrisville State, 43-33. ... Anthony Davis caught 12 passes for 119 yards and both of Seth Klein's TDs in Delaware Valley's 50-28 win against Widener. ... Brendan McGlynn's two-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter sealed RPI's 31-28 win over Union, its first Dutchman's Shoes win since 2010. ... Denzel Nieves rushed for 97 yards and two TDs in Montclair State's 21-14 win over Kean. ... Patrick Robinson blocked one punt and returned another blocked punt 10 yards for the go-ahead touchdown in the final 10 seconds of regulation to lift King's past Wilkes, 35-28. ... John Garcia tossed a pair of TDs to Tanner Williams and Hartwick topped Utica, 21-10, to close out its season. ... Jonathan Marrero rushed for 123 yards and a touchdown as Springfield closed out a disappointing season with a 35-21 win over WPI. ... Frank Santasiero rushed for 222 yards and three touchdowns and Jeff Puckett rushed for 159 yards ans six scores in Misericordia's 63-40 win over FDU-Florham, the first win in program history.

Thank you/contact me
Handling the Around the East column duties for another season has been an honor and a privilege. If you've read the column at any point this season, emailed me with feedback or just simply to chat about D-III football, thank you. Enjoy the playoffs and keep in touch. Drop me a line at andrew.lovell@d3sports.com or send me a tweet (@Andrew_Lovell).

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