CCIW duo win in the air, on the ground

More news about: Elmhurst | North Central (Ill.)
Nick Kukuc rushed for an early 79-yard touchdown against Cal Lutheran, but after running out of energy in past games on the West Coast and in the playoffs, the Cardinals kept pouring it on.
Photo by Joe Bergman, d3photography.com

By Jason Bailey

Sometimes you can compare apples and oranges. And bananas.

On North Central’s first trip to the West Coast, it wasted a 12-point halftime lead during a loss to Redlands in the 2011 season opener. After another quick start Saturday, North Central didn’t slow down while routing Cal Lutheran 41-21 in a first-round playoff game.

The difference? A fruit cornucopia.

Energy becomes more important after a long plane trip and two-hour time change that can drain a Midwestern team used to bus rides. And the hubbub of traveling makes it easy to overlook smaller details — like bringing halftime snacks to refuel the players.

"They really completely, totally ran out of energy," North Central coach John Thorne said about the loss to Redlands. "You can’t generate it. There is no machine you can hook them up to on the sideline. Once it’s gone, it’s gone."

North Central players could only drink water and Gatorade against Redlands. Adding fruit back to the mix against Cal Lutheran was decisive enough that Thorne is now considering buying bite-size foods for sideline consumption throughout the game.

Thorne also believes in another property of fruit: Early ripe, early rotten.

He isn't swayed by early scores, perhaps because North Central's season ended in the second round last year after blowing a 21-point lead to Wabash in the fourth quarter.

But when senior running back Nick Kukuc ripped off a 79-yard run on the second play from scrimmage against No. 8 Cal Lutheran (8-2 overall, 7-0 SCIAC), it helped convince No. 14 North Central (8-2, 6-1 CCIW) that it possessed enough speed to win.

The Cardinals opened a 24-0 lead in the first quarter and never ran out of juice. Kukuc finished with a career-high 250 rushing yards on 20 carries and said the team was conscious of its past stumbles.

“We’re keeping the pedal to the metal no matter how many points are scored,” said Kukuc, whose 42 career touchdowns include a punt and kick return. “We’re going to put the second team in if necessary, but we’re going to make sure this isn’t a close game.”

Simply winning was an accomplishment.

One if by air, more if by land

Since the playoffs expanded, few teams have traveled by plane in the first round and won:
2012: North Central at Cal Lutheran, W 41-21
2011: Cal Lutheran at Linfield, L 30-27; Redlands at Mary Hardin-Baylor, L 34-13
2010: Cal Lutheran at Linfield, L 42-26; Christopher Newport at Mary Hardin-Baylor, L 59-7
2009: Cal Lutheran at Linfield, L 38-17; Mary Hardin-Baylor at Central, W 42-40
2008: Occidental at Willamette, L 48-33
2007: Redlands at St. Johns, L 41-13
2006: Occidental at Whitworth, L 27-23; Millsaps at Carnegie Mellon L 21-0
2005: Occidental at Linfield, L 63-21
2004: Willamette at Occidental, L 28-14
2003: Redlands at Linfield, L 31-23
2002: Wartburg at Linfield, L 52-15
2001: Wittenberg at Hardin-Simmons, W 38-35 (OT)
2000: Pacific Lutheran at Bethel, W 41-13
1999: Washington at Hardin-Simmons,  L 28-21

Since the Division III tournament expanded to 28 teams in 1999, only four of 18 teams won their first-round games after traveling by plane. Mary Hardin-Baylor won at Central 42-40 in 2009, Wittenberg won a 38-35 overtime game at Hardin-Simmons in 2001 and Pacific Lutheran won at Bethel 41-13 in 2000.

While there are additional logistical challenges when flying, traveling in any fashion during the playoffs typically means you’re facing a better team.

And now North Central must fly to No. 3 Linfield (10-0, 6-0 NWC), which is 24-0 at home since 2009 and leads all NCAA divisions with 56 sacks this season. The Wildcats don’t look invincible, however, after sneaking by Pacific Lutheran 27-24 in the first round.

Beating Linfield would be a program-defining win for the CCIW titan, which is willing to pay to make that happen.

Although the NCAA compensates the cost of a charter flight for 68 people — postseason rosters are capped at 58 players, along with coaches and staff — when schools located more than 500 miles apart meet in the playoffs, some programs have a bigger footprint.

North Central athletic director Jim Miller said the school is spending $30,000 outside its general operating budget to transport about 20 extra people each week. Additional coaches, trainers, sports information workers and radio announcers are all included.

It’s quite the investment, so the loss to Redlands was actually a blessing in disguise.

CCIW teams have no shortage of nonconference options within driving distance, but the home-and-home series with Redlands blossomed because of a relationship between the college presidents. That bill reached $70,000, squashing hopes of a four-year deal.

But lessons were learned. The Cardinals flew into Los Angeles on a commercial flight before facing Redlands, not the ideal way to limit distractions. In comparison, the trip to Cal Lutheran was the full Division I treatment. A charter flight landed at smaller Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, Calif., where players didn’t have to worry about security lines or baggage claims. They walked directly from the plane to buses waiting on the tarmac.

The Cardinals left at noon Friday and arrived at the hotel at 5 p.m., a seven-hour journey with the time change, for a walkthrough practice in the parking lot. After North Central’s sixth first-round victory in seven years, the players were back on campus by 3 a.m. Sunday. Miller said this weekend’s flight to Portland, Ore., will follow a similar itinerary.

North Central earned its automatic playoff berth because of a point differential tiebreaker, while No. 17 Elmhurst (9-1, 6-1 CCIW) received a Pool C berth after forcing a three-way tie with No. 15 Wheaton (8-2, 6-1 CCIW) for the conference title.

Scottie Williams' 61-yard run to the 2 helped set up Elmhurst's first-ever playoff score. He ran for 196 yards and a touchdown.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com

It is the first playoff appearance in school history for Elmhurst, which had the resume for a potential home game but wasn't unhappy going on the road. The Bluejays validated their selection with a 27-24 victory over No. 10 Coe (10-1, 7-0 IIAC), holding the Kohawks to their second-lowest scoring output of the season.

"I was definitely nervous because it’s something new, but our kids handled it well," Elmhurst coach Tim Lester said. "And they handled it professionally. I try to keep telling them, 'Make it a business trip, not a vacation.'"

Elmhurst’s reward for victory is another road game against an undefeated opponent. The Bluejays will leave campus at 7 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving — “They are going to be in a food coma anyway," Lester said — for the seven-hour trip to No. 4 St. Thomas (11-0, 8-0 MIAC). The players will shake off the bus ride by running on the field Friday night.

Although the playoffs are a new experience for the Bluejays, they have been preparing by shortening practices as the season progressed. The longest session was trimmed from three hours to two hours, 15 minutes in an attempt to keep players fresh.

Senior running back Scottie Williams needs the most rest after rushing for 1,928 yards and 21 touchdowns on 302 carries. The CCIW’s offensive player of the year broke Elmhurst's single-season rushing record for the third consecutive season.

“He absolutely hates me every time I don’t let him practice," Lester said. "I don’t even call him anymore. I just text him saying, 'Dress warm. You're not practicing today.’"

With many careers waning, football players just want to hit the field.

North Central is happy to be playing somewhere, and it doesn't hurt to be undefeated on the road. After driving about 1,500 miles for five away games during the regular season, the Cardinals will accumulate about 8,000 air miles for their first two postseason games.

“If we have to fly somehow even farther, we’ll go,” Kukuc said. “We just want to stick together as a family and play the game we love.”

Maintenance in progress.
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