|Elijah Walker and the Eagles are soaring under new head coach Josiah Sears
Photo by David Malamut, d3photography.com
Josiah Sears is only five games into his head coaching career at Benedictine, but the young Eagles coach is already catching attention with a 4-1 record going into his team's biggest game of the season Saturday against defending NACC champion Lakeland.
The Eagles, led by quarterback Ryan Sample, scored a wild 51-49 comeback victory over Concordia (Wis.) last week. It was marked growth not only from Benedictine's season opener, falling to nationally-ranked Wheaton 26-7, but even this season from last.
"The biggest difference in our season this year compared to last is our change in team culture," said Sample, who since the Wheaton loss has led Benedictine to wins over MWC favorite St. Norbert (34-14) and MIAA favorite Adrian (35-28).
"This year we have every player fully committed to the program and they are demonstrating what Benedictine football stands for not only on the field but especially off the field and in the classroom," said Sample. "As a team we have been developing into men of excellence and we have built better relationships collectively as a unit than we have in years past. It is a great experience as a player to have the opportunity to be a part of a program with this dynamic culture and have this lifetime bond with each and every teammate and coach."
Sears has been the focal point of that culture change at Benedictine. He has been surrounded by success as a coach. He was an assistant at HCAC kingpin Franklin before taking an assistant job at Wheaton. There, he spent the last three years as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, helping the Thunder to two consecutive undefeated regular seasons.
"I honestly do not have another experience to compare it to, so it was normal for my first game as a head coach," Sears said of Benedictine's season-opening loss. "It was a bit of a surreal feeling though – being back on a campus where I spent a ton of time and seeing so many players I had coached and recruited for the last three years. The group of young men in the program at Wheaton are great guys and were very respectful leading up to the game."
Benedictine was competitive throughout the contest with Wheaton, trailing 12-0 at halftime, but could not generate enough offense to seriously challenge the Thunder in the second half.
"Like most, I do not think there is such a thing as a moral victory, but I thought our team played hard throughout the entire game," Sears said. "I was very proud of them for that. When we evaluated the film, it was easy to see where we missed opportunities to stay in the game that we had to capitalize on against a team like Wheaton. Wheaton is a tremendous football team with a great deal of talent on both sides of the ball."
As an offensive guy, Sears said he has been impressed with Sample and what he's been able to do this season. Against Concordia, he set school records for passing yards (449 yards) and in total offense (453 yards). He also threw six touchdown passes.
"Ryan is extremely intelligent and understands the big picture of what we are trying to accomplish in a game plan," Sears said. "He does a really good job of getting us in the right play and recognizes when a defense is showing him something that will require us to make a change. Secondly, he has a great deal of talent. He throws the ball extremely well – accurately and with good velocity. He also is a competitor and does not shy away from tough situations."
Elijah Walker has been the recipient of many of Sample's balls this season, with 36 catches for 682 yards and 10 touchdowns so far.
"Elijah is a tremendous young man who provides great plays on the field but also a tremendous amount of leadership to our program," Sears said. "He fights as hard as any player we have to help our team win. He has a great attitude and comes to work every day in practice – he truly leads by example to all players. His size and athleticism make him difficult to cover."
Sears said Benedictine remains challenged on defense. The Eagles gave up 551 yards passing against Concordia. The first-year head coach believes a lot of the problems have an easy fix.
"This is a very simple answer – we have to tackle better," Sears said. "We were in position to make plays many times on Saturday and did not get it done. I am encouraged by the fact that every mistake made is a correctable one."
Now, Benedictine must take on a nemesis in Lakeland, which beat them the final game of the season last year for the conference title and is at the top of the NACC again.
"This may sound like coach speak, and certainly is, but part of shifting our culture at Benedictine is geared around becoming driven daily to get better," Sears said. "No opponent, Lakeland or anyone else, can take our focus away from trying to get better every day. We will be well prepared and find some great plays to run on offense, defense, and in the kicking game. It should be a great matchup that we are looking forward to."
Sample said that he believes the Eagles will be ready for the challenge.
"Our players and coaches have a better understanding of what our opponents are trying to do both offensively and defensively, and we are putting ourselves in a good position each play by getting ourselves in the right calls to have the best opportunity for success," Sample said.
Little Brass Bell game
Taking nothing away from the Benedictine-Lakeland matchup, but the biggest game in the Midwest this week is the annual battle for the Little Brass Bell between No. 6 North Central (5-0, 3-0) and No. 11 Wheaton (6-0, 4-0). While the Cardinals have put up impressive scores this season – enough to leapfrog Wheaton in the national rankings – Wheaton has been consistently outstanding on defense all season. The Thunder set a school record last week with their 27th straight regular season victory. The last time Wheaton lost a regular season game? In November 2013, against North Central. Throw out the records and expect this game to be no different than the competitive, close contest it has always been, year after year.
Macalester rising in MWC
Don't look now, but can Macalester (5-1, 4-0 in MWC) pull off a surprise championship this year the way it did its first time in the conference in 2014, it they went 9-2? Macalester, which was 4-6 last season, has a break in its schedule because it will not have to play Monmouth (5-0, 3-0 in MWC). That means the Scots can put all the marbles into their contest against St. Norbert (3-2, 3-0) on Nov. 11 and have a chance to win the league again and represent the Midwest Conference in the postseason. The Scots have done it at times with scoring, outscoring Illinois College 45-35 on Sept. 17, and defense, beating Lawrence 17-7 last week. It will be worth watching to see if Macalester can stay undefeated until its November matchup with the Green Knights.
Aurora rising in NACC
Ditto for Aurora. While Benedictine prepares to battle Lakeland for part of the conference lead, Aurora has quietly gone undefeated over the first two conference games, going 2-0 and 3-2 overall. Aurora has wins over Wisconsin Lutheran and Concordia-Chicago, but its real tests are coming later in the season against Concordia (Wis.) on Oct. 29, Lakeland on Nov. 5, and ending the season against Benedictine Nov. 12.