|Fans have had a lot to cheer
about in St. Scholastica's fourth season.
All photos by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com
When Greg Carlson started the College of St. Scholastica football program in 2008, one of his duties was to design the team uniforms. Now, Carlson and the rest of the Saints are getting their plans ready for the playoffs.
St. Scholastica went from 1-8 four years ago to 8-0 this season and guaranteed the automatic playoff qualifier from the UMAC regardless of what happens the last two regular season games. The Saints have a two-game lead with a pair of games to go and beat the second place teams in the regular season to secure the bid.
"One goal was to get better every year," Carlson said. "We're a much better team, we're a better football program. We still won't sit back and relax in recruiting chairs and say we're where we want to be. There's still a lot that we want to do to get to this program where we want it to be."
Recruiting is one of the areas that has vastly improved for the Saints, a far cry from when they started.
"In 2008 when you said you were from St. Scholastica, they would kind of look at us cross-eyed and barely thought we had a program," Carlson said. "Winning has opened up the airwaves. All of sudden we've had six to seven calls this past month looking at St. Scholastica after they went somewhere else and want to transfer here."
|Greg Carlson was the longtime coach at Wabash and coached at Whittier before heading north.|
The first season, 57 freshmen were on the team that finished 1-8 and the Saints were getting routinely blown out by 40-plus points. Now the Saints have 18 seniors, of which 17 remain from that inaugural team.
"They're survivors," Carlson said of the remaining seniors. "There were a lot of players that didn't buy in and didn't want to pay the price. (The current seniors) kept working hard, kept getting better and better and here we are."
One of those seniors, quarterback Alex Thiry leads the nation in pass efficiency rating with a 233.4. He has completed 118 of 159 passes (74.2 percent) for 1,937 yards and 28 touchdowns. He has only been intercepted once.
"He's had one of those magical years," Carlson said.
Thiry's main target has been senior Keegan O'Neill, who has 40 catches for 739 yards and 12 touchdowns. The Saints are well balanced with a solid running game as sophomore Jake Jensen is the team’s leading rusher with 709 yards on 124 carries and eight touchdowns despite suffering turf toe in early October, with Travis Nehowig returning to center stage after recovering from a Week 1 injury himself, averaging 117 yards per game.
|Alex Thiry has barely been challenged by Saints' opponents this season, which include the UMAC and Lawrence, currently 1-8.|
The wins didn't just start in 2010. St. Scholastica has actually won 12 games in a row, as it closed out the 2010 campaign by going 7-3 by reeling off four straight wins.
Carlson figured his team had a chance to continue its winning ways when the team went to camp this season.
"That really set the stage for this year," Carlson said of the 2010 campaign. "They really dedicated themselves this season."
A quick search of the #aq hashtag on Twitter shows the players' focus on winning the conference's first-ever automatic qualifier (better known as an automatic bid) in football. And now instead of hoping to win games, the Saints expect it.
"It's been quite a process," Carlson said. "But it's been a lot of fun."
Dubuque looks to win a conference title for the first time since 1980. Standing in its way is Coe, who has made it to the playoffs for two straight seasons and despite three losses has a chance at a third straight berth and its first conference title since it shared with Central in 2005.
"We're pretty excited about the fact that although we had kind of a rocky start we worked ourselves in a position to be in the hunt for a conference championship," Coe coach Steve Staker said. "The last two years we were one game away. Here we are in position to do that. We're pretty fortunate because of the hard work the guys put in to be in this position."
The two teams meet Saturday at Coe at 2 p.m.
"I think our kids know that our opportunity is front of us," Dubuque coach Stan Zweifel said. "Our motto is 'Don't flinch, don't be afraid of the opportunity, enjoy the moment.' We're really excited about it."
|Michael Zweifel was presented with the game ball after he tied the NCAA record for most career catches.|
The Spartans (8-1 overall, 6-1 IIAC) bring a host of weapons to the table, most notable is wide receiver Michael Zweifel, who has 117 receptions for 1,674 yards and 22 touchdowns. He also helps on special teams and defense and holds the all-time reception record in all divisions of NCAA football, set this past weekend.
"I know he's good receiver and he's going to get his touches," Staker said. "We just can't let him get the long plays."
Justin Spaulding has rushed for 1,048 yards on 174 carries for a robust average of six yards a rush and scored nine touchdowns. Quarterback Wyatt Hanus has had a stellar season as well as he's thrown for 2,919 yards and 39 touchdowns, while only being intercepted five times.
"A lot of it depends on how Wyatt Hanus is going to play at quarterback," Staker said of the Spartans' success.
The Kohawks also counter with some standout players themselves. Brandon Leiran is the Kohawks leading rusher with 622 yards on 140 carries and five touchdowns. Quarterback Brad Boyle and reigning two-time IIAC MVP is a dual threat as he has thrown for 1,857 yards and 11 touchdowns and has rushed for 436 yards, scoring 12 times.
"He's the returning MVP and they have great experience," Zweifel said. "The way Boyle has performed last two years with his phenomenal accuracy and efficiency is really a big challenge for us."
Boyle's favorite targets are Joe Langenberg with 549 yards on 35 catches and has scored two times and Jared Kuehner adds 38 catches, 518 yards and five touchdowns. Defensively, Demetreus Johnson has played well as he has six interceptions for 144 yards and two interceptions.
Staker expects it to be a playoff-type atmosphere.
"This is why you play it right here," Staker said. "It comes down to this ball game now."
St. Olaf is looking to earn a playoff spot for the second time in school history and first since 1978. If the Oles win the final two regular season games, they will be assured of a 9-1 season and a probable playoff berth. The Oles (7-1) have had only two other seasons where they finished with nine wins -- 1978, where St. Olaf finished 9-2, and 1970, where they finished 9-0 in the days before Division III playoffs.
"The alumni are very excited, the student body is engaged," St. Olaf coach Jerry Olszewski said. "We have a fan bus going to St. John's and it's very exciting on campus and for the St. Olaf community."
A win Saturday would be big for the Oles, who haven't beaten St. John's since 2004 and haven't won in Collegeville since 2001. St. John's, the Division III all-time winningest football program has struggled this season with a 4-4 record. That being said, Olszewski still isn't taking them lightly.
"They're a good football team," he said. "They have good athletes and good coaches. Winning in Collegeville is not easy, I don't care what their record is. They're very athletic, they're a sound football team. They've done a lot of things well for a lot of years. We have to play well for us to compete."
St. Olaf has been led by several weapons this season. Leon Clark is the Oles' leading rusher with 772 yards on 160 carries and seven touchdowns. Quarterback Dan Dobson is a multi-purpose threat as he has thrown for 1,762 yards and 15 touchdowns and also rushed for 317 yards and six touchdowns. His favorite target is big-play receiver Steven Asp. Asp has 32 catches for 723 yards (22.6 avg.) and nine touchdowns.
The Oles' second leading receiver is Jake Schmiesing with 29 catches for 449 yards and five touchdowns. Clark is also a threat out of the backfield to catch passes as well as he has 233 yards on 29 catches.
"It's our offense," Olszewski said. "We want to spread them out. We stretch you horizontal and attack you vertical. When we're efficient offensively and stay on track we're a difficult team to defense."
And now the Oles will try and make sure they are able to defeat their toughest opponent in quest for the playoffs - themselves.
"This is a good football league," Olszewski said. "Our biggest opponent is us. When we do things the right way in our program we expect to be successful."
Wins by Lewis and Clark this season. The Pios matched the total number of wins of a combined six years after beating Pacific Lutheran 34-32 Saturday.