December 15, 2012

In Salem, the drama is back

More news about: Mount Union | St. Thomas
Chris Denton got past St. Thomas' Chinni Oji to pull in the touchdown that put the game away for the Purple Raiders.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com 

By Keith McMillan
D3sports.com

SALEM -- What a way we’ve come, Division III.

Look at the landscape post-Stagg Bowl XL. Mount Union, following its first championship since 2008 but 11th overall, may be starting another purple reign that lasts several seasons. But they are not without a handful of legitimate challengers, as D-III over the past few go-rounds has restored the drama without sacrificing the level of play.

Put another way, it hasn’t taken the retirement of Larry Kehres or an unexpected Mount Union dropoff to bring drama back along the Road to Salem. A handful of teams are able to go toe-to-toe with the purple power, so D-III can have it both ways. To be the best, teams still need to scale the Mount or get past UW-Whitewater – absent from Salem after seven consecutive Stagg Bowls following a 7-3 season – but they’re not so far ahead of the pack that nobody can play with them.

Mary Hardin-Baylor led 28-14 and 35-28 in the fourth quarter at Alliance, Ohio, in the semifinals. Mount Union needed to play its best quarter of the season to pull out the victory. The storming of the field, an uncommon occurrence for a program that rarely plays a close game, was both a sign of respect for UMHB and the chance for Mount Union fans to experience the late-game tension that most of the rest of us grow to love during the course of a normal season.

During portions of the Stagg Bowl, though St. Thomas lost 28-10, the Tommies were in total control of the action on the field. They didn’t turn it into enough points to win, but they shut out the No. 1 offense in the country from the 12:50 mark of the first quarter to the 1:04 mark of the third.

Larry Kehres was asked after the Stagg Bowl whether he saw shades of his program in St. Thomas.

“Certainly,” said the coach who’s brought his team to Salem 16 of the past 20 seasons. “They tackle well, they rally to the ball, and they have a very well prepared coach.”

Glenn Caruso came to Salem last season after St. Thomas lost, 20-0, to UW-Whitewater in the semifinals. He said he felt like a failure then, and he used the word again after Stagg Bowl XL.

“I’m not afraid to say it,” he said.

“We’re pretty crushed right now. I’d be lying if I said anything else. … For us to excuse [losing the Stagg Bowl] would not allow us to utilize that same pain to get back here.”

It might be some time before Caruso fully appreciates what his team’s time in the spotlight has done for St. Thomas. He’s a coach who’s not afraid to be emotional – be it crying or cutting off a reporter’s line of questioning – postgame. He tells his players he loves them, and the players tell each other they love each other. A late-game timeout by Caruso brought the whole St. Thomas team together on the sidelines.

With the emergence of St. Thomas and the continued presence of Mary Hardin-Baylor, Salem has some drama outside of Mount Union.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com

That doesn’t appeal to everyone, but Caruso has enormous appeal. And now, by extension, so does St. Thomas.

The chance to showcase their facility and brand of football on ESPN gave St. Thomas a few legs up on its D-III counterparts when it comes to pointing toward Stagg Bowl XLI. Playing a 15th week is something only they and Mount Union got to do this season. It’s one more week of coaching and practice getting young players to improve. The Tommies also played a spring game in Canada this year, meaning they’ve taken full advantage of every opportunity to improve players in their program.

One might not appreciate what the Tommies had to do to get to Salem, since Mary Hardin-Baylor, Wesley and Mount Union were on the other side of the bracket, but they didn’t exactly go through a bunch of nobodies. Elmhurst featured Gagliardi Trophy winner Scottie Williams and went 9-1 in the powerful CCIW. Hobart was 12-0 coming into the quarterfinal game, and in the semis, UST beat No. 5 UW-Oshkosh, which knocked No. 3 Linfield out of the playoffs.

Literally as I write this, Tommies defensive end Ayo Idowu tweets “You guys haven’t seen the last of this St. Thomas team.” I was thinking the same thing. Between Caruso, commitment to facilities and the program, and the young players already in the program – not the least of which is sophomore quarterback Matt O’Connell – I’d be surprised if this was St. Thomas’s last trip to Salem.

Caruso is perhaps the next Kehres, but there’s still the matter of the current one. He loses impact seniors all over the place – his top six offensive linemen, a national player of the year in safety Nick Driskill, an all-American-level defensive end/linebacker in Charles Dieuseul, three senior wide receivers, three senior running backs, etc. But he’s got a star in the making in sophomore quarterback Kevin Burke.

A Mount Union broadcaster before the game predicted he’d go down as the best Purple Raiders quarterback ever. In a line that includes Gagliardi Trophy winners like Greg Micheli, Bill Borchert and Jim Ballard, plus champions like Gary Smeck and Rob Adamson, that’s saying something.

“The future at Mount Union is bright,” said Driskill, the senior who had endured three losses in Salem before finally going out a champion. “It’ll be just fine.”

While Mount Union’s seniors avoided becoming the first Purple Raiders class to go without a championship since those who graduated after the 1992 season, there are a couple programs awful close to breaking through in Salem. UMHB loses LiDarral Bailey, Javicz Jones and a group that nearly knocked off Mount Union on the road in the semis, just as the 2004 Stagg Bowl Cru did.

They’re at the top of the heap of teams itching to win their first title. Wesley’s done everything but get to Salem. Linfield returns its entire defense, plus a star running back and defensive tackle who missed most of this season with injuries.

UW-Whitewater’s three losses this season equaled their number of defeats from 2007 through 2011, when they won four national championships under Lance Leipold. There’s a good chance the Warhawks will be back challenging for a run to Salem next season.

That makes six legitimate contenders for Mount Union’s throne, as Burke will have to carry more of the offensive load his next two seasons.

The drama is back in D-III. And the joy is back in Alliance.

Because UW-Whitewater raised its level the previous seven seasons, and had won three straight, Mount Union got to live the way the rest of us do. Championships are not a birthright. They are won with talent and coaching, but also harnessing it and putting forth every once of effort it takes to get to Salem and leave victoriously.

Be it defensive linemen Chris Favazzo and Jared Modrak switching to the offensive line, Blair Skilliter playing both ways, or Skilliter, Jake Simon and T.J. Lattimore sharing carries, Mount Union’s seniors – all but two of whom had never won before – did whatever they had to win it all. Dieuseul, who is from Florida, mentioned practices in the snow, 5 a.m. spring workouts and 6 a.m. lifting sessions, all powered by the fuel of having come up short the previous season.

In that sense, Mount Union got to experience the championship organically, the same way any other group of seniors winning it for their first time would have. Family hugged players outside the locker room. There were cheers, and players saying they wouldn’t sleep all night following the Stagg Bowl. They were soaking it all in.

Driskill called it a perfect ending. I asked if it would have been any more perfect going out against UW-Whitewater instead.

“I didn’t come to Mount Union to beat Whitewater,” he said. “I came to win a championship.”

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@ Salem Stadium; Salem, Va.
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