/playoffs/2004/linfield-win-opens-the-door

Linfield win opens the door

More news about: Linfield | Mary Hardin-Baylor

Linfield can celebrate its 2004 title, but so can many others in Division III, who now can see hope for the future.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, D3sports.com

By Keith McMillan
D3sports.com

SALEM, Va. – When Linfield's Kelley Bertrand wrapped up Mary Hardin-Baylor's Josh Welch in the backfield with 16 seconds left on Saturday, the Wildcats realized their national championship dreams, and gave hope to the rest of Division III's elite.

Frustrated since 2000's "Miracle in the Mud" loss at the hands of Central, when the Dutch advanced to the national quarterfinals on an improbable overtime blocked field goal-turned-touchdown, the Wildcats finally won it all.

By doing so, and beating a perfectly game opponent who had also been frustrated in the playoffs prior to this year, Linfield provided a model for Division III teams who have been able to get into the playoffs but not put together a championship run.

And with the field growing to 32 teams next year, opening the door for four more teams who don't win their conference championship, the majority of the teams in the division can open the season legitimately believing they have a path to the title.

Mary Hardin-Baylor certainly did its share along those lines, shattering Mount Union's mystique with a 17-point fourth quarter and a 38-35 win in Alliance. Linfield beat Rowan 52-0 on the same day, as the two teams with the greatest recent Stagg Bowl traditions fell in the national semifinals.

Saturday's Stagg Bowl was an indication for both Linfield and Mary Hardin-Baylor that starting on the right track and sticking to the program eventually pays off.

"We learned so much from our previous (playoff) experiences," said Linfield coach Jay Locey. "The fruition of this is really the accumulation of several years of people stepping it up."

Mary Hardin-Baylor's rise is phenomenal considering the university's football program is just seven years old.

"I hope we established a resolve to move this program forward," said coach Pete Fredenburg, who acknowledged that might be little consolation to seniors who were a touchdown away from winning the national championship.

"I think it all started my freshman year," senior middle linebacker Bret Page said. "That was the initial senior class. The seniors of this year have been able to take the ball and run with it."

The 13-2 Crusaders did that rather literally, leading the nation in rushing in 2004. They were one of three Pool C teams to make the playoff, and went on the road to beat four of the nation's top seven teams (Trinity, Hardin-Simmons, Washington and Jefferson and Mount Union) on the road to the Stagg Bowl.

Linfield, meanwhile, made it two national titles for the Northwest Conference since its teams came over from the NAIA seven years ago.

"We're still kind of out there," said Locey, referring to the geographic isolation that both of this year's finalists experience. "But it does give the conference credibility. It really is good football."

Since Pacific Lutheran won here in 1999, that hasn't been in doubt.

After two seasons in which Division III giant Mount Union has been beaten, the path to the Stagg Bowl doesn't seem quite as roadblocked.

What Linfield and Mary Hardin-Baylor did to get here today should give hope to every Division III team in the Top 25, and even some who might not always be the top team in their conferences, a reason to believe that someday soon, it could be them hoisting the Walnut and Bronze.

Some things never change

Even with the Purple Raiders not in town, both teams were all class after the dramatic Stagg Bowl finish.

In the postgame milling around behind the North end zone locker room, Fredenburg approached Locey and congratulated him. The coaches exchanged genuine compliments for each other's defenses.

While the defensive play against the nation's top two offenses was certainly part of the unique story in the 28-21 game, there were some other things usually seen in every Stagg Bowl in Salem.

The experience shared by the teams and traveling fans, win or lose, is often a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. Brett Elliott, who transferred from Division I-A Utah, said he expected to compete for a national championship at Linfield, but how enjoyable the experience was caught him off guard.

"I didn't know I'd develop the friendships and bonds that I did," the All-American quarterback said.

Locey said he consulted with Pacific Lutheran and St. John's coaches asking how to approach the weekend in Salem.

"We decided to be loose and let the kids enjoy themselves," he said.

But they'd been doing that all season. So much, in fact, that Locey said the players seemed to want the season's last practice not to end.

"I don't think our guys wanted to leave the field," he said, noting what must be a sure departure from their attitude toward practice in summer two-a-days.

Linfield players, some of whom already wore 2004 national champion hats and T-shirts, hung around by the bus and took in what they said was a partially surreal experience.

With so much work and focus put into winning a national championship, it's hard for the winners to digest it being all over. But at some point, players from both teams will get a chance to reflect on just how enjoyable the whole time in Salem is.

One last thing that never changes: the Division III experience as a whole.

Just minutes after the game, Linfield players had walked up into the stands at Salem Stadium to give hugs to family members who had made the cross-country trip from Oregon.

These players, most of whom are good students who stay out of trouble, will return to the classroom in January to resume preparations for the rest of their lives. Seniors from both teams likely have played their final football game, but are all the more enriched from the rare but exceptional experience the Division III playoffs provide.

Sep. 23: All times Eastern
Final
at Framingham State 50, Massachusetts Maritime 7
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Muhlenberg 56, at Juniata 40
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at Dean 25, Becker 10
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Salisbury 27, at TCNJ 7
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MIT 38, at Catholic 21
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Merchant Marine 56, at Maine Maritime 31
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at Hobart 34, Endicott 17
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at Morrisville State 44, Nichols 22
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at Delaware Valley 27, Stevenson 7
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at Albright 9, Widener 7
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Christopher Newport 16, at Montclair State 8
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at Westminster (Pa.) 41, Bethany 14
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Middlebury 41, at Bowdoin 14
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Williams 24, at Colby 7
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Amherst 36, at Hamilton 6
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Ursinus 35, at Moravian 17
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Trinity (Conn.) 51, at Bates 0
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at LaGrange 38, Brevard 28
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Geneva 33, at Thiel 24
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at Plymouth State 37, Mass-Dartmouth 7
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Kean 28, at Southern Virginia 14
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Frostburg State 24, at Rowan 10
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Union 17, at Curry 14
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at Carnegie Mellon 37, Thomas More 17
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Lycoming 44, at King's 41
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at Western New England 21, Husson 14
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Johns Hopkins 41, at Dickinson 10
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at DePauw 51, Wooster 24
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at Ohio Wesleyan 37, Allegheny 21
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at Misericordia 43, Wilkes 14
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at Alfred 45, Rochester 7
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Wesley 66, at William Paterson 0
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at N.C. Wesleyan 35, Maryville (Tenn.) 25
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Huntingdon 31, at Ferrum 28
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at McDaniel 27, Gettysburg 20
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at Buffalo State 33, RPI 21
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Franklin and Marshall 27, at Susquehanna 24
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at Denison 45, Oberlin 17
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at Northwestern (Minn.) 10, Westminster (Mo.) 7
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at Eureka 44, Crown 20
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at Lebanon Valley 24, FDU-Florham 14
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at Heidelberg 47, John Carroll 21
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at Ohio Northern 35, Otterbein 7
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at Mount Union 55, Baldwin Wallace 7
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at Rose-Hulman 37, Defiance 14
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at Marietta 49, Muskingum 25
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Franklin 59, at Bluffton 30
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at Hanover 64, Anderson 21
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Mount St. Joseph 31, at Manchester 14
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Worcester State 34, at Westfield State 10
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Coast Guard 13, at Norwich 9
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at Fitchburg State 31, Bridgewater State 29
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Wittenberg 48, at Kenyon 11
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at Wabash 25, Hiram 21
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North Central (Ill.) 51, at Millikin 21
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at Millsaps 17, Sewanee 13
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at Rhodes 35, Birmingham-Southern 9
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at Hendrix 36, Austin 24
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at Martin Luther 34, Greenville 20
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at Trinity (Texas) 41, Chapman 35
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at Loras 73, Buena Vista 34
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at Wartburg 30, Washington U. 20
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at Gustavus Adolphus 51, Hamline 7
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Augsburg 48, at Carleton 28
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at Bethel 64, St. Olaf 7
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at Luther 21, Dubuque 17
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at Central 52, Nebraska Wesleyan 27
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Simpson 38, at Coe 33
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Wheaton (Ill.) 40, at Elmhurst 15
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St. Norbert 66, at Grinnell 13
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at Knox 13, Ripon 6
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at MacMurray 32, Iowa Wesleyan 14
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Hardin-Simmons 63, at Howard Payne 3
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Southwestern 37, at Louisiana College 34
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Monmouth 26, at Macalester 0
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at St. Thomas 20, St. John's 17
@ Target Field, Minneapolis
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at Springfield 42, WPI 10
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at Cornell 55, Beloit 36
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at Brockport 28, Utica 14
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at Hartwick 24, St. John Fisher 21
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at UW-La Crosse 41, Carroll 6
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at St. Scholastica 37, Minnesota-Morris 3
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at George Fox 44, UW-Eau Claire 0
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at Western Connecticut 37, Salve Regina 23
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at UW-Stevens Point 41, Adrian 28
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at Wesleyan 24, Tufts 17
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at Averett 35, Methodist 6
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at Berry 28, Centre 14
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at Case Western Reserve 56, Waynesburg 21
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at Grove City 24, St. Vincent 14
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at Illinois Wesleyan 18, North Park 0
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at Mary Hardin-Baylor 50, Texas Lutheran 7
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at UW-Platteville 56, Lakeland 22
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Carthage 55, at Augustana 14
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Chicago 28, at Illinois College 7
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at Sul Ross State 35, McMurry 7
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at Wilmington 37, Capital 30
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Lake Forest 42, at Lawrence 26
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at East Texas Baptist 79, Belhaven 40
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Arizona Christian 56, at Whittier 38
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Sep. 28: All times Eastern
6:30 PM
Shenandoah at Randolph-Macon
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Sep. 23: All times Eastern
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at Delaware Valley 27, Stevenson 7
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Wesley 66, at William Paterson 0
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at Alfred 45, Rochester 7
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Johns Hopkins 41, at Dickinson 10
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Frostburg State 24, at Rowan 10
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at Heidelberg 47, John Carroll 21
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at Mount Union 55, Baldwin Wallace 7
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Wittenberg 48, at Kenyon 11
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at Wabash 25, Hiram 21
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Hardin-Simmons 63, at Howard Payne 3
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North Central (Ill.) 51, at Millikin 21
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Wheaton (Ill.) 40, at Elmhurst 15
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at St. Thomas 20, St. John's 17
@ Target Field, Minneapolis
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Final
at Brockport 28, Utica 14
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at Case Western Reserve 56, Waynesburg 21
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at Illinois Wesleyan 18, North Park 0
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at UW-Platteville 56, Lakeland 22
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at Mary Hardin-Baylor 50, Texas Lutheran 7
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