Bid brings excitement to Wash U

Washington University beat its archrival, won the Founders Cup, won a conference title and earned a bid to the playoffs all in the span of a little more than 24 hours.
Photo by James Byard, WUSTL Photo Services

While there were no real surprises of what teams from the Midwest made the Division III playoffs Sunday, there were a few wrinkles.

Washington U. coaching veteran Larry Kindbom admitted he was excited when he saw his Bears make the Division III playoff board when the 32-teams were announced on Sunday.

The Bears, who successfully defended their University Athletic Association on Saturday by defeated Chicago 17-7, knew that nothing was guaranteed being a Pool B team on the bubble, with two regular season losses – even if those losses came at the hands of No. 5 UW-Whitewater (10-0) and Coe (7-3).

"They put (the selection show) on our website and we all met together," Kindbom said Sunday. "We didn't have the vocal part of it on so all we could do is look at the board and we couldn't hear it. I'm excited because they've been rewarded for working hard and believing in themselves because it's been an interesting year."

Washington U. will travel to No. 20 Franklin (7-3), which thought their chance of hosting a home playoff game was all but gone when the Grizzlies were upset by Bluffton (4-6) 24-17 on Nov. 9. The Grizzlies end up sharing the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference title with Rose-Hulman.

"The lesson I always try to teach guys when they're having problems is sometimes the worst thing that has happened to you can turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to you if you don't let it get the best of you," Leonard said after learning his team will play in the friendly surrounding of Faught Stadium for its opener.

"We learned a lot of great lessons getting beat by Bluffton and I give Bluffton credit. We learned you can't just walk on the field because you think you're going to win. I'm surprised we got a home game but we love playing at home. We started letting things slide. It's my fault for letting little things slide. Good football teams and coaches don't let things slide. No doubt our guys are excited and will be ready to play on Saturday."

Another team surprised to be at home is Illinois Wesleyan (9-1). The Titans, which finished second to North Central in the College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin, will play at home against Wartburg (8-2) with the help from their strength of schedule.

"We felt pretty confident that we would get a bid but we had no idea if we would be traveling or hosting," Illinois Wesleyan coach Norm Eash said. "It worked out very well and we're pretty excited to host Wartburg. Tucci Stadium is a place we love to defend. We have a great fan base and I know our campus will be very excited to have a home playoff game here."

Illinois Wesleyan made the playoffs in 2011, losing to Monmouth in the first round. Eash said a lot of his seniors were sophomores on that team – several of them starters. He said those players, part of a 32-member senior class, are looking to make amends for the 2011 opening game defeat.

"CCIW is a very competitive conference and it prepares you very well for the playoffs," Eash said. "You have North Central, Wheaton and Elmhurst was a playoff team last year. To go through our conference really helps. Our forte is our depth and senior leadership. They are experienced and veterans. They take to game corrections well and great to coach them."

John Thorne, whose No. 4-ranked North Central team successfully defended its conference title, said while the CCIW was not as strong as it was from top to bottom this season as in the past, he believed his team will be prepared to take the field at home against Albion (8-2) of the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.

The both teams have a common opponent – Wheaton. The Thunder defeated Albion 66-0 on Sept. 14, while Wheaton lost to North Central 35-16 for the Little Brass Bell on Nov. 9.

"It's always exciting to win our conference," Thorne said. "Right now, we want to learn as much as we can about Albion and get ready to play some football on Saturday."

Concordia (Wis.) coach Greg Etter said all he knows about No. 7-ranked UW-Platteville right now is they are members of the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference and that's all he needs to know as far as quality goes.

"We haven't played them under my watch," Etter said. "For me to talk about what they do on offense and defense, I don't know. I do know that they play in one of the best if not the best conferences in the nation. I know they have had success in that conference and we have a ton of respect for that league and Platteville being a part of that league."

The Falcons, to their credit have won seven straight games after opening the season 1-2. Concordia has done it on the arm of Austin Damaschke (2,846 passing yards), who is completing nearly 65 percent of his passing, and wide receiver Garrett Wenzelburger who averages 106.9 receiving yards per game.

"We're going to do what got us here," Etter said. "We have to be who we are and take advantage of our strengths. One of the goals each game is to improve. We've been pretty successful at doing that so far this season. "We'll evaluate how we played on Saturday and see if we accomplished that. This is certainly an exciting time for us."

St. Norbert (8-2) won the outright Midwest Conference title the hard way, losing to Lake Forest 31-3, but advanced because Illinois College lost to Carroll to close the season for the second year in a row. If Illinois College would have won, they would have shared the MWC title, but the Blueboys would have likely advanced because of the leagues quarters-led tiebreaker since the teams did not play each other this season.

St. Norbert must regroup to go on the road and battle undefeated UW-Whitewater, a season removed from its last national championship.