November 17, 2011

A look in the mirror

More news about: Franklin | Thomas More
Jonny West took over the quarterback role after Kyle Ray's graduation and has thrown for 3,144 yards and 30 TDs.
Photo by Ralph Greenslade

By Adam Turer
For D3sports.com

Conference champion for the fourth time in the last five years.

Two playoff wins in the last five years.

Lost to North Central in its first playoff appearance during its recent run of success.

A 9-1 regular season record in 2011.

Led by a former coordinator who quickly led the program to the playoffs.

A dominating winning streak in the program’s rivalry game.

Looking to break through from consistent top-25 team to a legitimate national championship contender.

Beginning its quest to the 2011 Stagg Bowl at Faught Stadium on November 19.

The similarities between Franklin and Thomas More run deep. There might not be a more evenly matched first round game in this year’s postseason. The programs are very similar in both their recent past and future goals.

Over the past five seasons, since Jim Hilvert took over at Thomas More, the Saints have won 43 games and four PAC titles. Over that same span, Mike Leonard, at Franklin since 2003, has led the Grizzlies to 45 wins and four HCAC championships. Despite being in different regions for NCAA purposes since Thomas More joined the PAC, the programs are just 108 miles and two hours apart. Their geographical proximity is just the tip of the iceberg.

“I think there are a lot of similarities,” said Hilvert. “I think both staffs do a great job of recruiting and of getting the most out of their players.”

In Hilvert’s last stop, as defensive coordinator at Mount St. Joseph, he routinely exchanged game tapes with Leonard, who was offensive coordinator at Hanover prior to coming to Franklin. The two would meet at Skyline Chili in Batesville, Ind., exchange film, and talk football over 3-ways and cheese coneys. Now at their new schools, the coaches compete for recruits from the Cincinnati, Louisville, and Indianapolis areas.

“We’re two former coordinators and we both learned from good people while we were coordinators,” said Leonard.

In the spring, members of Hilvert’s offensive staff traveled to Franklin to talk shop with Leonard and his staff. The two groups exchanged philosophies on the Grizzlies’ spread attack and the Saints’ shotgun option.

“That’s just the way football coaches work and I think that kind of sharing is unique to football,” said Leonard, who was not worried about sharing information with a possible playoff opponent. “We thought that if we happen to play them later in the year, so be it.”

The Grizzlies have lost two HCAC games over the past five seasons, both in 2009. The Saints lost four PAC games in Hilvert’s first season, then went four years without losing another conference game until this year’s conference finale loss to Waynesburg on Nov. 5, after Thomas More had clinched the automatic bid. Being the alpha dog in their respective conferences helps prepare both teams for postseason competition.

“We know that we’re everybody’s big game in conference play,” said Hilvert.

Dominating conference play can be a challenge. Both teams needed to take care of business on a weekly basis without looking ahead to the postseason, while still keeping their goal of a deeper playoff run on their minds. Last season, Thomas More defeated Washington and Lee in the first round at home before being blown out at Mary Hardin-Baylor. The Grizzlies drew UW-Whitewater in the opening round and trailed by ten points heading into the fourth quarter before losing 52-21.

“Our goal was to win the conference again, but our seniors have been talking about advancing in the playoffs all season,” said Leonard. “We’ve won a couple playoff games in our time here, but we’ve lost some, too. It’s always more fun to win.”

Each program has established itself as a postseason regular. Now, they are looking to take the next step and play into December. Just reaching the playoffs is no longer the momentous achievement that it was four or five years ago for these programs.

“It helps when you’ve been to the playoffs the last four years,” said Hilvert. “Your players aren’t going to be overtaken by the moment.”

Franklin’s ambitious regular season scheduling brought Whitewater to Faught Stadium for a regular season contest on Sept. 10. Next year, the Grizzlies will play Mount Union in the regular season. Playing the purple powers in September shows Grizzlies players what kind of team it takes to reach Salem in December.

“It helps to play Whitewater early in the season,” said Leonard. “Now we know that Thomas More is very good, but we’ve played the best and we hung with the best for a while last year in the playoffs. That helps us in this stage of the year.”

The teams had two common opponents this season. Thomas More defeated Hanover, 44-13, in the season opener. Franklin claimed the Victory Bell for the seventh straight season, defeating the Panthers, 40-15, in the regular season finale. Thomas More squeaked past Mount St. Joseph 33-28, changing quarterbacks halfway through the Week 11 game, while Franklin also beat MSJ 35-23 on Oct. 1.

The Grizzlies have not seen an offense this year that resembles Thomas More’s triple option attack. The Saints made a very late season switch at a very important position and will hand the offense over to freshman quarterback Luke Magness the rest of the way. Magness saw his first significant action of the season in the final game of the regular season, when he sparked a second-half comeback in the Saints’ fourth straight Bridge Bowl win over rival Mount St. Joseph. Robert Kues, who had been the starter, appears to have left the team.

During this five-year run, Franklin has yet to win a home playoff game, while Thomas More has yet to win one on the road. Something has to give on Saturday. The winning players are looking forward to an opportunity to eat Thanksgiving dinner in the school’s dining hall, or at the home of a teammate’s family that lives near campus.

“There’s nothing like practicing on Thanksgiving morning,” said Leonard.

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