By Clyde Hughes
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.
• 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.