|The Captains consistently
shoulder one of the nation's toughest nonconference schedules. On
Saturday, it paid off with an uplifting upset over a ranked
CNU athletics photo
The biggest downside to being a perennial playoff qualifier is that the high of winning your conference year in and year out is often overshadowed by a disappointing loss to end the season. Christopher Newport knows the feeling well. The Captains have qualified for the playoffs nine times in the program’s twelve year existence, but have just two playoff victories -- none since 2004.
In the past three years, the Captains have been humbled in the first round by Mary Hardin-Baylor (59-7), Kean (34-10), and 2012 Stagg Bowl champion Mount Union (72-14). These losses left a sour taste at the end of each season, which motivated this year’s senior class.
“We had a chip on our shoulder this offseason,” said senior linebacker Tyler Portell. “We worked harder than we ever had before in the weight room, we woke up early and ran together, and we pushed each other hard.”
Since the program’s inception, Christopher Newport has never shied away from competition. The Captains consistently face one of the toughest nonconference slates in the beginning of each season. While the competition has helped prepare CNU to dominate in league play, the losses have mounted. Entering this season, the Captains had not defeated a ranked opponent since opening the 2007 season with a win over No. 10 Rowan.
“These kids are paying their own way to college,” said head coach Matt Kelchner. “Why not give them the opportunity to play against good teams? I want to give them their money’s worth.”
That has led to regular season contests in 2003 and 2004 against Bridgewater, ’03 to ‘07 against Rowan, ‘03 and ‘04 against McDaniel, ‘06 and ‘07 against Mary Hardin-Baylor, ’09 and ‘10 against Wesley, and several contests with ranked Salisbury teams. Christopher Newport is not trying to set an example for how other Division III teams should schedule nonconference opponents, but the program has a philosophy that others could learn from. The first step to winning big games is scheduling them. Christopher Newport has long been ahead of the curve in that regard.
“Sometimes you wonder if you’re making the right decision, but if you don’t step up and take on a challenge, you’re selling yourself and your kids short,” Kelchner said. “We’ve taken some lumps, but we’ve won a few, too.”
This season started with a 17-10 victory over No. 16 Salisbury. A bit of the weight of the past few seasons was lifted, but there is no time to enjoy the victory with a high-powered Hampden-Sydney team coming to Newport News this weekend.
“It was frustrating the past couple of years, because we want to win big games and beat the ranked teams,” said Portell. “To finally be able to do it is a great accomplishment, but we’re not done yet. This is just the first step.”
Finishing your season on the wrong end of a 50-plus point differential never feels good, even if it comes in the playoffs. While the Captains can stake a claim as one of the nation’s top 32 teams from the past three seasons, they recognize that there is a gap between their program and the eventual champions they faced in the first round of last year’s tournament.
“It’s not a great boost to your football ego when you lose 72-14, but you have to take positives away from every experience,” Kelchner said. “I looked at everything -- their fans, facilities, warm-ups, coaches, players -- and took something away from the minute we pulled into Alliance.”
In addition to the grueling non-conference schedule to start the year, the Captains must now contend with an improved USA South. Five conference teams posted a .500 or better record in 2012, and Huntingdon joined the conference this year. Although it won a three-way tiebreaker to earn the league’s Pool A berth last year, Christopher Newport lost more than one conference game during the season for just the third time in its history. While the Captains know that they have a tougher path to a four-peat in the conference, they have their sights set higher.
“We’ve learned what it takes not just to be a winning team, but to be a championship team,” said Portell. “We’re not satisfied with only a conference title.”
The playoff experience, as disappointing as it was, made a difference. The hard work and dedication that the Captains brought to their offseason paid dividends in the season opener.
“After playing those teams without much success, I went home and thought, ‘That’s what I want this program to be like,’” said Portell. “Our seniors, we came up with a plan. We wanted to prepare ourselves like a Mount Union does, in the weight room and discipline-wise.”
The talent discrepancy between Mount Union and Christopher Newport was evident last November. But this year’s Salisbury squad is also a talented team. So is Hampden-Sydney. The Captains are closing the gap. It’s too soon to say if this Captains squad benefitted from its playoff losses, but, as Kelchner said, it is important to draw positives from every experience.
“The teams we have played in the playoffs in my time here are very good and very talented,” said Kelchner. “Our guys had their eyes opened to what some real good players look like, firsthand.”
In the past, the Captains let games spiral out of control once things started to go downhill. Against Salisbury last weekend, they showed signs of improved focus and discipline.
“We kept playing our brand of football and didn’t look up at the scoreboard until the end of the game,” said Portell.
Winning four straight conference championships and automatic playoff berths is no small feat. No other seniors in the mid-Atlantic have the opportunity to accomplish what the Captains’ seniors can this year. Yet, a fourth straight one-and-done postseason blowout would leave these seniors feeling like they came up short.
“We want to be remembered as that CNU team that won big games,” Portell said. “We want to make it deep into the playoffs. We don’t want to just win our conference and lose in the first round.”
Two single-game receiving records were smashed in Week 1. On Friday night, Wesley’s Steven Koudoussou caught a school-record 17 passes for a school-record 266 yards. He tied a record with four touchdown receptions. He was the prime recipient of quarterback Joe Callahan’s school-record 37 completions for a school-record 510 yards. Not a bad Wolverines debut for Callahan. The following day, Hampden-Sydney’s Holton Walker caught 14 passes for a school-record 235 yards and two touchdowns. His quarterback, Nash Nance, completed 24 of 28 passes for 372 yards and four touchdowns, and added 75 yards and two scores on the ground.
The Centennial posted an even 5-5 mark in Week 1. The ODAC posted an impressive 6-2 mark, highlighted by Washington and Lee’s 14-13 victory over CC opponent Franklin and Marshall. The USA South went 3-5, with newcomer Huntingdon eager to start its season on Sept. 14 at Mississippi College. Independent Wesley was victorious, while independent Southern Virginia lost its first game as a member of Division III, falling 33-20 to Methodist.
The Centennial begins conference play this weekend, with Gettysburg-Ursinus and Muhlenberg-Franklin and Marshall the marquee matchups. Two teams that impressed in Week 1 square off when Hampden-Sydney travels to Christopher Newport. No. 5 Wesley hosts Salisbury.