Does a rivalry do more to serve the players and coaches or the
fans, parents and alumni of a school?
It’s a legitimate question to ask as we roll into the final week of the regular season, the time of year that frequently gets labeled as “Rivalry Week.” In the Mid-Atlantic, three major rivalry games, spanning different conferences, will descend upon us on Saturday
At the forefront is a matchup that calls it like it is: The Game. Hampden-Sydney will travel up the road to meet Randolph-Macon for the 115th time in their histories. And while rivalries are almost always played for pride, this ODAC matchup will also for the third year in a row determine the conference’s playoff representative.
One state to the north, two Maryland public schools, Salisbury and Frostburg State, will collide on the field -- the victor laying claim to the Regents Cup and the title “Champion of the Free State” (those words are engraved on the trophy).
And scraping the top of the Mid-Atlantic is the cross-town feud between Moravian and Muhlenberg, two schools that are separated by barely a 20-minute car ride.
When these schools take the field, it is perhaps the statement by Randolph-Macon’s Pedro Arruza that embodies the broad sentiment of coaches: “I understand that there’s a lot riding on this game, and I understand the playoff implications, but I get excited for every game. I feel like I’m very competitive. I feel like this about every opponent on our schedule.”
So if that is the sentiment of coaches, are rivalries fueled by those of us looking in?
For 13 straight years, I’ve sat in on one of Division III’s biggest rivalries. I’ve seen a rivalry thrive on competitiveness and enthusiasm. I’ve felt it in the crowd around me, and I believe I’ve seen it pulse throughout the stadium and nearby parking lots. But then, I’ve also seen a darker side of a rivalry, where the fan intensity becomes more destructive than constructive. Opponents’ goal posts have been torn down, fights have broken out, students have clutched at their eyes after being pepper sprayed.
Those days, when a rivalry makes the news for all the wrong reasons, appear to be behind me now -- and I hope it never creeps into the games in this region. And whereas the fans can get out of hand, it’s those on the field -- the coaches, the players and the officials -- who have the power to keep us grounded.
That means seeing the game for what it is on the field, and nothing more.
“You want to be competitive with you sister institutions,” said Frostburg State head coach Tom Rogish, “and Salisbury is our sister institution. Every year, that’s the stripe as far as our program goes. Salisbury has been a national power, and we’re trying to get our program up to where their program is.”
Moravian’s Scott Dapp knows that a rivalry game can have special implications, but are those implications based on who you’re playing? Maybe, maybe not. In part, they’re about the timing of the game.
“It’s the final game of the season, so regardless of who you’re playing, it’s the one you’ve got to live with for the rest of the off-season,” Dapp said. “Every other week, if the game didn’t go your way, you can try to rebound.”
Pride factors into Moravian’s matchup with Muhlenberg, too. The schools share recruiting, a conference and motivation.
“Geographically, it’s the bragging rights, it’s any cliche you want to use,” he said. “I think the biggest thing now, which it wasn’t for the first 20 years that I was a coach here, it’s a conference game. That makes it certainly something that counts a little bit more. This year, unlike previous years where Muhlenberg’s had a couple of fantastic seasons, this year they’re not doing as well and we’re certainly not doing as well. There’s certainly going to be a big pride thing as a motivating factor.”
Dapp points out that he must prepare his players week in and week out, no matter whether the opponent is 8 miles away or 80 miles. However, he did say feedback from alumni suggest they perceive this finale as the biggest game of the year.
He’s not alone is seeing that.
Though prior to my deadline I wasn’t able to reach the coaches at Hampden-Sydney, Salisbury and Muhlenberg, I do remember something H-SC’s Marty Favret told me prior to the start of the 2007 season. I asked him during an interview which game would define his team’s season. He said that the alumni will be happy to hear him say Week 11 against Randolph-Macon. As it turned out, that year became the start of a resurgence in the rivalry.
But that brings us back to who hypes rivalry games more, the team or the fans?
“It’s not just another game,” Arruza said. “It’s the most important game of the year. But it’s the most important game of the year because it’s the game we’re playing this week. Last week, the Bridgewater game was the most important game of the year. The week before that, it was Guilford. That’s the kind of approach we like to take here. No doubt, this is an important game, no doubt the fans are going to get excited. No doubt the alumni are going to get excited.”
A loss for any team in a rivalry game will be heartbreaking. But it’ll be heartbreaking because a loss is a loss. They all hurt. Unless a team can say unequivocally that it left everything it had on the field, there will be second-guessing in the days that follow. As Dapp said earlier, the hardest part about the end-of-the-season rivalry match isn’t that it’s a rivalry, it’s that it’s the end of the season.
Arruza is doing what he always does in the days before the next game. He went to church on Sunday, he’s looking at game tape, he took his kids to school. Even going out for a run is just part of the routine.
“My self-worth isn’t hinging on this game” against Hampden-Sydney, he said. “At the end of the day, I’m going to go home, and my wife and kids are going to love me and feel the same way about me whether we win or lose. To be sure though, I want to win, and I want to win in the worst way.”
I’m sure his opponent and the others playing in Rivalry Week feel precisely the same way.
The automatic qualifier is going to be decided this weekend for
all three conferences in the Mid-Atlantic for which the AQ is
possible. In addition to the Old Dominion, which was touched on
above, the Centennial and USA South have a lot on the line as
Old Dominion: Hampden-Sydney had already clinched a share of the ODAC title going into last weekend, but with seeding a priority, a win against Salisbury was imperative. Quarterback Corey Sedlar strung together 313 yards and six touchdowns in the Tigers’ dominating 59-14 effort. An H-SC fan emailed me to say that Sedlar is on the verge of breaking 10,000 career yards, something to watch for in The Game. H-SC also forced eight turnovers in the matchup against the Gulls.
Randolph-Macon struggled two weeks ago against Guilford, which made Saturday’s outing against Bridgewater all the more significant to the Yellow Jackets’ playoff hopes. A balanced offensive attack helped lift R-MC 33-23 over Bridgewater, securing the fact that The Game would again be for the conference title.
Centennial: Johns Hopkins and Dickinson currently sit atop the Centennial, both teams having only one loss in conference play. Thanks to a JHU win back in Week 6, the Blue Jays hold the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Red Devils.
JHU brought Franklin and Marshall to its knees on Saturday to the tune of 51-13, holding the Diplomats to minus-20 rushing yards while using 507 total offensive yards and Andrew Kase’s three touchdowns to leave no doubt in this one. The Blue Jays line up in the regular season closer against McDaniel, which is coming off a big win against Gettysburg after a field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired.
Dickinson will round out its season on Saturday afternoon against Ursinus, one of the other top teams in the Centennial and a noticeably tough road to travel to make it to the postseason. The Red Devils, unlike JHU, are in the unique position of having only one total loss this year, making them a prime candidate to make the playoffs with a Pool C bid if JHU wins out. As of last week, Dickinson was eighth in the South Region rankings, and that is sure to improve when the new figures are published Wednesday afternoon.
Not to be overlooked are Ursinus and F&M, which each have two in-conference losses. Should Ursinus beat Dickinson on Friday, and if Johns Hopkins loses, the Centennial will have to dig into its tiebreaker procedures to see who will get the automatic qualifier. As many as four teams could be holding 5-2 conference records. Though every conference has different tie breaking methods, some of the more common themes could be number of wins against the other tied teams, overall record or the “Rose Bowl rule,” which means the team that has had the longest playoff drought gets in (that would be F&M). To be clear, this is all speculation because the specifics of the tiebreaker policy are often not widely known until the situation actually arises.
USA South: Christopher Newport succumbed to the weight of further injuries on Saturday, losing 21-14 to a Maryville squad that rallied for two touchdowns in the fourth quarter and had 14 total tackles for loss. It was the first time Maryville ever beat CNU. That knocks the Captains out of playoff contention and puts the USAC’s berth squarely in the hands of N.C. Wesleyan and Averett.
The Bishops are undefeated in conference play and solidified that status by holding off Shenandoah 38-28. The teams gained 429 and 425 yards and were near mirror-images of each other in other categories. This coming weekend, NCWC will stare down Averett, which has one loss in conference play and got over a trying Week 10 hump with a 34-28 overtime win at Ferrum. Regulation ended in a 14-all tie, and the teams traded touchdowns until Dontavious Watson scored for his second time of the day on a 25-yard run.
Both the Bishops and Cougars typically give a nod to their air attack, which could make for a dynamic game when they meet on Saturday.
With Wesley standing at 9-0 and entering its final game against
a non-Division III opponent, the Wolverines seem certain to snatch
up one of the NCAA’s three Pool B bids. On Saturday, Shane
McSweeny, who has spent the year as the team’s starting
quarterback, didn’t play -- but that didn’t seem to
faze the Wesley offense. Under sophomore Justin Sottilare, the team
had three passing touchdowns against Div.-II Lake Erie, while
rusher Aaron Jackson had 184 yards and a score himself. The
Wolverines seem likely to be ranked No. 1 in the South Region with
a win this coming weekend, but with the dynamics elsewhere in the
country, there are lots of variables.
I would be happy to hear from anyone who has questions or feedback regarding the Around the Mid-Atlantic column or Division III football in general. Please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.