Long road back

More news about: North Central (Ill.)
North Central has nominated Nick Kukuc for the Gagliardi Trophy, the award for the top overall Division III football student-athlete.
North Central photo by Steve Woltmann

There’s an old sports adage that says “it’s not how you start but how you finish.”

For the North Central Cardinals, wins over the next two weeks against No. 20 Illinois Wesleyan and rival Wheaton would go a long way to erase the pain of its opening season loss to UW-La Crosse.

More importantly, it would catapult the No. 9-ranked Cardinals to a seventh consecutive College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin title and the playoffs as one of the region’s top teams.

“Our guys tend to get really excited for these two games,” said North Central coach John Thorne. “We’ve been waiting all year trying to peak and play our best football right now. It’s a really exciting week. These are the kind of games that we like to see what we can do. Illinois Wesleyan and Wheaton are teams that do a great job scheming and have wonderful athletes. Every single play is really a battle and it will be when we play them.”

While the home loss against UW-La Crosse is part the North Central’s resume, Thorne is quick to point out that it was quarterback Spencer Stanek’s first game back after a year absence. Stanek had a fumble returned for a touchdown and in the fourth quarter had an interception returned 39 yards for a touchdown that gave La Crosse a 21-17 victory.

“Wisconsin-La Crosse scored three touchdowns on us but just one on our defense,” Thorne said. “Spencer felt horrible, thinking he let the team down with those turnovers. We really needed to build his confidence. He hasn’t thrown an interception since conference play and has completed 65 percent of his passes. If our receivers can get better in catching the ball, he would be well over 70 percent.”

Overall this season, Stanek has completed 101 of 162 for 1,424 yards (203.4 yard per game). Three of Stanek’s four interceptions this game came in the UW-La Crosse season opener. Opposing defenses, though, can’t forget about the Cardinal running game behind Nick Kukuc, who is averaging 106.4 yards per game. Jordan Tassio will come in to run North Central’s wildcat format, where he averages 5.3 yards per carry.

“Kukuc is really special,” Thorne said. “We’ve nominated him for the Gagliardi award. He’s that kind of guy. He’s a great student, person, captain and leader.”

Thorne said his offensive line, anchored by left tackle Jace Werkheiser, is starting to finally get playing time together after various injuries.

Defensively, safety Shane Dierking has four interceptions this year while teams throw away from preseason All-American Josh Mitchell. Dierking’s 37 tackles is the second most on the team. Linebacker and leading tackler Joey Michal (42 tackles), has been slowed by a leg injury, Thorne said.

“This game will be the best he’s felt,” Thorne said of Michal. “We will need him to get back to the eight to nine tackles a game he was making. Josh Fick has been our most consistent player up front on the defensive line.”

While North Central is averaging 443.9 yards per game in total offensive while giving up 255.4 yards per game. While the Cardinals have created a strong resume, they realize it could all be for nothing if they don’t perform well against Illinois Wesleyan and Wheaton on Nov. 3. Thorne said the good thing, though, is that the Cardinals own their own destiny.

Here comes Hanover

In the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference, No. 21 Franklin and Hanover have separate from the back, both going 5-0 this season and 5-2 overall. Hanover, under first-year coach Steve Baudendistel, opened the season with losses to Illinois College (6-1) and No. 11-ranked Wabash (6-1).

The Panthers have then stormed through the conference much like Franklin with one scare, a 33-27 overtime win against Rose-Hulman on Sept. 29. Both teams have two conference games remaining before the two faceoff in the annual Victory Bell game, which this year will be held at Franklin.

MWC collision course

St. Norbert (5-2, 5-1 in conference) has quietly worked its way back up the Midwest Conference rankings and now has a chance to win the conference in the final game of the season against Lake Forest (7-1, 7-0). Lake Forest is having its best season since 2004 and plays Ripon on Saturday. If the Foresters win, they will get a bye week Nov. 3 before taking on the Green Knights Nov. 10.

St. Norbert, almost an afterthought after losing to Monmouth earlier in the season, is now tied with Illinois College (6-1, 5-1). Illinois College has already lost to Lake Forest and doesn’t play St. Norbert in conference play this year. If the Green Knights beat Beloit and Grinnell over the next two weeks, it will set up the big Midwest Conference showdown.

Concordia-Chicago takes on nemesis

Concordia-Chicago takes its undefeated season (7-0, 4-0) and its Northern Athletic Conference lead to Lisle, Ill. to take on defending conference champion Benedictine. The Cougars have not beaten the Eagles since 2007.

Probably the most memorable loss came in 2009, when Benedictine beat Concordia 15-14 when the Cougars just needed a win to capture the conference title. Benedictine has been successful offensively over the past two tilts, whipping Concordia 47-41 in 2010 and 43-21 last season.

This year, Benedictine is all but out of the title chase, with a 1-3 conference record and 3-4 overall, but can still play spoiler. Concordia-Chicago can take comfort in knowing that a loss will drop it into a tie with Wisconsin Lutheran (3-1, 5-2) and Concordia (Wis.) (3-1, 4-3), two teams the Cougars have already beaten this season.