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
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.
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.