Hanging on to hopes

Brian McMullen and Wheaton let Saturday's game against North Central get away from them.
Wheaton athletics photo by Thunderphotos.com

Mike Swider stood on the field at McCulley Stadium this past Saturday after his nationally ranked Wheaton Thunder fell to North Central 28-6 and was still a playoff believer.

Yes, Wheaton played without starting quarterback Jordan Roberts who injured his thumb the Thursday before at practice, leaving the Thunder searching for answers on offense against a hard charging North Central defense.

But Swider said he believes the NCAA selection committee will judge Wheaton on its body of work and not a short-handed home loss against rival and No. 5-ranked North Central. The way Swider sees it, if the No. 18-ranked Thunder beat Millikin on Saturday, they’re in.

“We’ve got to go down to Millikin and win,” Swider said. “I think that’s enough motivation for us. If we win, I believe we’re in, unless you’re telling me we’re not.”

Last Saturday was the annual Little Brass Bell game between Wheaton and North Central, two campuses that are a mere seven miles from each other. As one would assume in a rivalry between two nationally ranked teams, the stands were full and no one left McCulley Stadium despite the score.

In fact, it seemed like few fans left after the game as both teams, their fans, parents and friends spent more than 30 minutes on the field for the presentation of the Little Brass Bell trophy and soaked up the sunny, slightly breezy Saturday afternoon.

The loss didn’t dampen Swider’s thoughts about Wheaton’s playoff chances and left impressed with North Central, which clinched the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin’s automatic playoff bid with the victory.

“They’ve got good players and they are well coached,” Swider said. “They are well coached and we just got beat. They came out and ran a few plays that we hadn’t seen much of. They got a beat on us and we weren’t initially prepared for what they initially started doing, but got it figured out.”

North Central, which played without its starting quarterback Brad Crackel on Saturday as well, knows what it feels like to sit around and wait for a playoff invitation. That invitation never came for the Cardinals last year, which was nationally ranked and shared the CCIW title.

“That was tough last year,” said North Central coach John Thorne. Thorne became North Central’s all-time winningest coach with the victory. He now has an overall record of 75-21 (.781) in nine seasons.

“We had two losses last year so we weren’t too shocked when we didn’t get in,” he said. “Wheaton will probably get in with one loss. We had so many injuries last year with our star players, so it was probably a good thing because we had very few guys who were still healthy.

“I think our kids wanted to prove something today. We’ll have to see what happens and see how we progress. Our offensive timing still has to improve. Defensively, we still need to get more turnovers.”

North Central’s top defender, linebacker Matt Wenger said last season made this year’s Cardinals hunger. Wenger said, even more than that, it made the team grow closer and rally around each other.

“This is the closest team I’ve ever been on,” Wenger said after making 13 tackles Saturday to lead both teams, including a hard hit at the end of the game that probably could have been heard from Chicago. “These guys really do care about each other. You talk about that at every level but some teams aren’t real close, but we are. I tell you what, you’re going to play that much harder because you have brothers on the field you don’t want to let down.  I think that is what is really making a difference for us as a team.”

Thorne said he believes Wheaton should get in and will be a solid representative for the CCIW.

 “Our offense came out very strong but you got to play 60 minutes especially when you play against Wheaton College,” Thorne said. “They have really good players and fabulous coach. Both teams played hard and it was tough to gain a yard for both teams.”

Wheaton does have a successful playoff history on its side, Two years ago, the Thunder were one game from the Stagg Bowl, losing to eventual national champion Mount Union 45-24 in the national semifinals.

“We lost to a good team,” Swider said. “But I’m not down or discouraged about our players. We’ll be okay and we’ll be ready to play on Saturday.”

Wheaton hopes a win on Saturday will be good enough to earn them another game the following week.

Chicago, Wash U play for UAA title
Chicago and Washington University, St. Louis will quietly play for the University Athletic Association title Saturday at University of Chicago’s Stagg Field.

Chicago (7-2, 2-0 UAA) and Washington (7-2, 2-0) beat UAA favorite and then-nationally ranked Case Western in consecutive weeks to set up the showdown. The showdown is quieter nationally because the UAA does not have an automatic bid, which means the conference winner would need a Pool B invite, but it’s a big rivalry for the schools.

Chicago, with losses to Elmhurst and Wabash, and Washington, with losses to Rhodes and Wittenberg, might be hard pressed to make their case after Saturday.

Regardless, if Chicago wins, it will be the Maroons’ first UAA title since 2005 when they went undefeated in the UAA and 5-4 overall. Washington will be looking for its first UAA title since 2004 when it went 3-0 and 6-4. That was the last of three consecutive UAA titles for the Bears. Their current 7-2 records are the best both teams have had this decade.