Lakeland Muskies were celebrating what they believed at the time
was a co-Northern Athletic Conference championship last Saturday
after beating defending champion Aurora 28-0 on Senior Day in
Then someone piped in the audio play-by-play of the Concordia (Ill.)/Benedictine game. Concordia, which had beaten Lakeland and tied with the Lakeland for the NATHC lead, need a win to get into the playoffs.
As the final minutes ticked down, the Lakeland players, fans and supporters on the field grew from celebratory to ecstatic. Benedictine was able to withstand a final charge from Concordia for a 15-14 win. The Benedictine win gave the 6-4 Muskies the undisputed NATHC title and the conference’s berth into the Division III playoffs. It’s the school’s second trip to the Big Dance. The first one was in 2005 when the Muskies went 8-3 and lost to Augustana 49-22 in the first round.
“It was mass hysteria,” said Lakeland coach Kevin Doherty, who said he made his players stay on the field as they listened to the final three minutes of the Benedictine/Concordia game. “Our seniors went from just being pumped up to ecstatic. It was organized chaos. Now we knew we had to make announcements about the playoff announcements on Sunday and what happens next.”
Needless to say, the Benedictine gift was a pleasant surprise for Lakeland and its fans, but the Muskies don’t want to give the impression that they lucked into the Division III playoffs. Lakeland, after starting 0-3, has won six of its last seven game, including the final two in must-win playoff conditions for have a chance.
“Of the 230-some-odd Division III teams, there are 32 still playing and we’re one of them,” Doherty said. “I don’t want to (rein in) their excitement. This is a great honor and they should be excited about it.
“To be honest, our last two games have been big, exciting games for us. We had to beat Concordia (Wis.) at their place, playing for the Cheese Bowl. We knew we had to win out to even have a shot at this. This on Saturday, we had to keep our focus around the excitement of Senior Day to beat Aurora.”
Doherty doesn’t argue the fact at some will question his team’s 6-4 record, but he is quick to point out those losses came at the hand of playoff-bound Central (10-0) and Mount St. Joseph (9-1), along with Concordia (Ill.) at 8-2 and Carthage at 7-3.
“We were ahead of Concordia and Carthage at halftime and we could have been 8-2 this season,” Doherty said. “There are a lot of teams sitting at home with better records that us. It is what it is and how it’s how the playoffs are determined. It puts a lot of ownership of winning your conference. Why be in a conference if you’re not rewarded about winning it.”
The reward for winning the conference – a first round meet at No. 2-ranked Wisconsin-Whitewater, the “other” Wisconsin team in the Division III playoffs. UW-Whitewater has played in the past four Stagg Bowls, winning in 2007 against Mount Union.
“If you’re going to win a national championship, you’re gonna have to play them one time or another,” Doherty said. “We’re only two and a half hours away, so why not play them now. Their record and conference (Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) speaks for itself. It’s one of, if not the best conference in all of Division III. When you reach this point, they are all quality teams.”
To add just a little intrigue to the game, Whitewater’s offensive coordinator Jim Zebrowski was the head coach of Lakeland in 2007, the last time the Muskies made the playoffs. Doherty said he’s has about 10 seniors to played under Zebrowski on that team and who will be looking forward to the game.
“I have a good working relationship with Jim,” Doherty said. “We really helped me out a lot when I got the job here. We have some kids who played under him and kids who were recruited by him but may not have necessarily played under him. Yes, it does make things a little more interesting in that respect.”
But how do you beat a team that’s ranked No. 2 in the country and has been to four straight Stagg Bowls, though?
“I could be a smart aleck and say score more points than them,” Doherty said with a laugh. “But how do you do that? I don’t know. We will have to play mistake-free football. That means everything from cutting down misreads, penalties and holding on to the football. They are a very good football team. My first game here at Lakeland, we opened with them (a 41-7 loss), so we have some familiarity with them.”
Lakeland will have to get its rhythm passing game going, led by quarterback Jake Dworak, who is averaging 232 yards per game in the air. His two receivers, Roberto Flores (95.6 ypg) and Jacob Heinemeyer (80.3 ypg) are his favorite targets.
Defensively, Doherty said he has been rotating seven players along the defensive line to keep them fresh and agile.
Defensive backs Keith Woodson will be assigned to Whitewater’s best wideout and Tony Faller leads the team in tackles. Jamie Schramm, Josh Gordon and Jason Bruggink will need to have big games to give Lakeland a chance.
“Our defense has been a great surprise this year,” Doherty said. “We had to replace seven starters off last year’s defense. We had a lot of guys who hadn’t started before but in the last three to four games, they have been playing unbelievable.”
Lakeland will have to play like that and then some when they want to make history and knock off one of the true kingpins in Division III football in the first round of the playoffs on Saturday.
Mount St. Joseph (9-1) at No. 12 Wittenberg (10-0), noon ET:
It will be a short bus ride for Heartland Collegiate Athletic
Conference champion Mount St. Joseph for its first round game
against the undefeated champion of the North Coast Athletic
Conference. Wittenberg is making its first playoff appearance since
2006, losing to Capital in the first round. Mount St. Joseph is
looking for the school’s first playoff win, last appearing in
2007, losing to then NCAC champion Wabash.
No. 15 Wabash (9-1) at No. 14 Illinois Wesleyan (9-1), noon CT: After all the focus in recent years on North Central and Wheaton, it was Illinois Wesleyan will be carry the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin banner into the playoffs, this time against NCAC runner-up Wabash. The Titans had the benefit of beating two nationally ranked teams to take the crown, but Wabash is coming off a big win against playoff bound DePauw.
No. 10 St. Thomas (9-1) at No. 8 Monmouth (10-1), noon CT: Monmouth got a week’s rest and has one of the top passing quarterbacks in the country in Alex Tanney, but will face a stiff test against St. Thomas. It’s Monmouth’s second opening-round playoff game in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. The game could be the biggest test for each team’s defense. The Fighting Scots come into the game averaging 47.7 points per contest while St. Thomas is putting up 40.9 points per game.