November 4, 2009

Titans take control of CCIW destiny

Illinois Wesleyan's current run in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin has been three years in the making, one could say.

The Titans captured the share of the CCIW title in 2007 in North Central and compiled a 7-3 record. Some would think that kind of accomplishment in a conference with the reputation of the CCIW would get you a national ranking and/or a playoff invite.

Illinois Wesleyan got neither. That hasn't exactly been forgotten about in Bloomington, either.

"We have 19 seniors on the team and these seniors were sophomores two years ago when we tied North Central for the conference title," said Illinois Wesleyan coach Norm Eash said. "They remember it was great to win the conference, but because of the situation, we didn't have any control over the automatic qualifier. That's been a real motivator for them the past two years."

The big lesson the Titans learned in 2007? Control your own destiny.

That's exactly what No. 19-ranked Illinois Wesleyan (7-1 overall) has in front of them after it upset No. 18-ranked North Central 28-22 in overtime last Saturday and now gets No. 12 Wheaton at home this Saturday. If the Titans win, all they will need is a victory over North Park on Nov. 14 and they are in.

No Pool C debates. No ranking considerations. No coin flips. Win and you're in.

"We've talked all season about getting in a situation where we control our own destiny," Eash said. "That has happened for us."

The Titans have been able to do it this season with what is arguably the best defense in the CCIW. Illinois Wesleyan is holding opponents to 12.8 points per game, including a stingy 72.1 yards per game on the ground.

Outside linebacker Nick Nikolich, a three-year starter and two-time All-CCIW performer, leads the team with 56 tackles, 10.5 for losses and 4.5 sacks. Defensive backs Neal Loftus, P.J. Cummings and Roman Hunter have been ball hawks with 10 interceptions among them in the secondary.

"We have a lot of defensive players who were part of that 2007 team," Eash said. "We got off to a slow start against Hope but we've been playing well ever since. Nick has great instincts, and makes a lot of plays for us. He's probably a candidate for defensive player of the year. Experience on defense is one of the big factors for us this year."

The other factor is quarterback Kraig Ladd. Ladd's amazing story last week will become part of Titan -- if not CCIW -- folklore, if it hasn't already. Ladd broke his throwing hand in Illinois Wesleyan's only loss to Millikin.

After missing the next two games, he returned for the North Central game last week and completed 23 of 48 passes for 340 yard, including two touchdowns while running for a third.

"He still has a broken hand," Eash said. "The doctors told him if he wasn't a senior, he wouldn't be playing. He was not going to let us get beat on Saturday. He was our leading rusher that game as well and it tells you just how valuable he is to us."

Wide receiver Chris Messina caught 11 of Ladd's passes for 150 yards in the North Central game while Dayton Burnett caught five more for 116 yards.

As impressive as the win against North Central was, Eash said his players realize they have to do it all over again against Wheaton to keep their hope of winning the CCIW and continuing to own their own destiny.

"It would be a great reward for how hard our players have worked," Eash said about what a win would mean for the Titans. "It would be a great experience for them to make a run. The CCIW is one of the top leagues in the country and anyone coming out of this conference will represent the conference well."

The Titans could very well be one of those teams with a win on Saturday.

Stretching the field

• Mount St. Joseph became one of a handful of teams to clinch a playoff berth last weekend, but the Lions faces probably its biggest game to date on Nov. 14 when they take on rival No. 11 Thomas More in the annual Bridge Bowl game.

• Concordia (Ill.) continues to impress and surprise people. The Cougars' thrilling 22-21 victory over Concordia (Wis.) last weekend has them in a three-way tie for first place in the Northern Athletic Conference with Concordia (Wis.) and Lakeland. The good news is the Cougars have victories over both. The bad news is Concordia, because of an earlier conference loss to Wisconsin Lutheran, still needs to win out. They travel to defending NATHC conference champion Aurora this Saturday before closing the regular season at home against Benedictine.

comments powered by Disqus

Clyde Hughes

Clyde Hughes has been writing sports at various times over the past 24 years, covering everything from high school, college and sporting events. A native of football-crazed Texas, Hughes works in Indiana and has written for numerous newspapers and magazines.
2003-04 columnist: John Regenfuss

Previous Columns

November 17, 2015
Doing their homework on the fly
Even for programs with deep playoff histories, each new tournament brings new excitement and...
November 10, 2015
New look, same rivalry
Rookie head coaches will be on both sidelines, but the opponents in the Midwest Conference champions...
November 3, 2015
Lakeland is ready to turn the corner
The Muskies lost their last head coach, who left to coordinate the offense at Benedictine. This...
October 27, 2015
Monmouth is on the right track
Since a heartbreaking loss and a heart-stopping comeback win, the Fighting Scots have been cruising....
October 20, 2015
Franklin is in a familiar position
If ever there were a year to break the Grizzlies' streak of HCAC dominance, many thought this would...
October 13, 2015
Wheaton is winning with balance
The Thunder don't have any player with eye-popping statistics on either side of the ball. What the...
October 5, 2015
St. Norbert doing more with less
The Green Knights don't beat up on each other much during the week. They save that energy for...
September 29, 2015
Warriors are far from satisfied with wins
Wisconsin Lutheran hopes to again find its groove under longtime head coach Dennis Miller. The...
September 22, 2015
Engineering a climb up the HCAC mountain
Rose-Hulman is off to another fast start, but the Fightin' Engineers know that they have to get past...
September 15, 2015
The focus, like the name, stays the same at North Central
Jeff Thorne has taken the reins of the program from his father, John, but the Cardinals remain...
September 8, 2015
Illinois College gives reins to a man named Brady
It's a tough act to follow, playing after the best quarterback in school history, but Brady Huber is...
August 31, 2015
10 games to watch for 2015
Sometimes the same game every year deserves to be in the 10 games to watch. But there are always...
November 18, 2014
Big hills to climb
Benedictine and Macalester each face tall orders on Saturday, as they travel to Wheaton and...
November 11, 2014
IC's seniors get one more shot
Michael Bates and the Illinois College Blueboys went to the playoffs as freshmen. On Saturday...
November 4, 2014
Benedictine makes mess of NACC
You can thank the Benedictine Eaglesand their 33-6 thrashing of defending NACC champion Concordia...
 • More Division III football news releases

Other Columnists