November 27, 2013

Stanek and Kelly making the most of it

Spencer Stanek
North Central's Spencer Stanek missed an entire season, but he seems to be making up for it this year in the Cardinals' high-tempo attack.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com

By Clyde Hughes
D3sports.com

As the Division III gets ready for its version of the "Sweet Sixteen," one of the more interesting matches features teams from two of the division's premier conferences -- No. 7 UW-Platteville (10-1), of the WIAC, at No. 4 North Central (11-0), of the CCIW.

Just as interesting will be the quarterback duel between Platteville's John Kelly and North Central's Spencer Stanek.

Platteville went 3-7 during Kelly's freshman year in 2009, when he started two games. Now Kelly has led the Pioneers to their first NCAA playoff, with their only regular-season loss to No. 5 UW-Whitewater. For Stanek, he saw his team humbled by Linfield, 30-14, last year in the second round and wants nothing more than advance to the quarterfinals and beyond.

For the losing quarterback, it will be the unfortunate end of a fabulous season.

Kelly, in his first full season at quarterback for Platteville, is completing 68 percent of his passes (282 of 415) for a whopping 3,377 yards and 34 touchdowns. His passing yardage is third best in the country. He has had a school-record season in total offense and passing yards and needs 10 completions to set that mark as well. 

"It's been a real honor to make the playoffs," Kelly said. "I've never played this far into the season. It's a great feeling. We're just taking it one day at a time and enjoying it as much as we can. Ever since my freshman year, I wanted to be 'the guy.' I wanted to train a little more get my body ready. Being healthy for the first time has been awesome. Just being able to be around the guys has been great and I want to enjoy this as long as I can."

Stanek enters the game completing 74 percent of his passes (211 for 284) for 2,774 yards with 36 touchdowns and one interception. Those stats make Stanek the national leader in passing efficiency with a 197.5 rating. In fact, Stanek's 64.7 completion percentage last Saturday against Albion in the first round of the playoff s was only the second time all season he was below 70 percent. 

Stanek passed along the credit to his offensive line and North Central's juiced-up, quick tempo offense guided by offensive coordinator Jeff Thorne, the son of head coach John Thorne.

"Our offensive line has been great all season," Stanek said. "I always say that anytime someone asks because it's true. They've been phenomenal. I haven't had much pressure all year. It also comes down to our offensive coordinator. He has a great game plan for us every week and he always puts us the right positions to be successful. We have great play calling and moving at a faster pace." 

John Kelly's first starts at quarterback for UW-Platteville were in 2009, but this is the first year he's made it through 10 games as a starter unscathed.
Photo by Ryan Coleman, d3photography.com 

The quarterbacks each had to overcome a certain amount of adversity. Before this season, Kelly had never started more than seven games in a campaign. Last year, he played in four games, starting two and threw for 11 touchdowns before breaking a collarbone against UW-Whitewater. He received a medical redshirt.

"It was a big decision for me the come back because I didn't know if I wanted to come back," Kelly said. "I figured I've got the rest of my life. Then I didn't want to look back in 15 years and saying I wish I would have played one more year, so I took it and came back and it's been a fun run."

Another reason that led Kelly back was that his younger brother Tom, is a freshman quarterback for the Pioneers. Tom, who broke several of John's records at Chicago's Guerin Prep, are four years apart, making it the first time they played on the same football team.

"When we were little, we would play baseball together he was always the youngest guy but he held his own ground," Kelly said of his younger brother, who is an inch taller but 10 pounds lighter, according to the Platteville roster. "Now that we're on the same team, it's really pretty cool. We took a trip to Portland for Week 3 (to play Lewis & Clark) and just having him there was great to see how we practiced and stuff and we always had fun together. That has made this a very special year."

Stanek sat out 2011 for what he called "personal reasons," but gave a few small nuggets why when gently pushed. He said he spent that time getting stronger and improving his technique at quarterback, something that has helped him be as sharp as he is this year.

But the North Central signal-caller said he returned to the Cardinals more mature and ready to take on the leadership role that quarterback – especially at a perennial nationally-ranked school like North Central – requires. 

"I think was a more determined when I returned," Stanek said. "It helped me mature up a little bit and stay calmer during the game and practice. (The time away) also helped me develop a sense of leadership. I was now one of the older guys and I had to take that leadership role. Coaches pushed me to be more vocal in practice and at games. I think I was a little more mature and not so young."

Stanek said he would not mind earning a little bit of bragging rights for North Central and the CCIW against the WIAC. The Cardinals are 3-0 against the WIAC this year after opening the season against UW-LaCrosse (41-24), UW-Stout (41-14) and UW-Stevens Point (27-7). 

"The WIAC is a great conference and we have a lot of respect for it," Stanek said. "We lost to Wisconsin-Whitewater in the playoffs in 2010 (20-10) so we still haven't been able to beat them yet. It would be good to get some bragging rights for the CCIW. Playing teams in top-tier conferences like the WIAC are always the most fun."

Kelly said even though he and North Central were never on each other's radar screen coming out of high school in Chicago, he would love to win in front of family and friends who will attend the game and never got to watch him play in Platteville. 

"We have a lot of guys on the team who live in that area," Kelly said. "I have a lot of family and friends and we hope to have a big crowd (at North Central) too. We're just trying to play another game. A lot of our guys know someone from North Central because they against them in high school."

Stanek said win or lose, he hopes people remember him as someone who did everything he could to help the Cardinals win. 

"I guess I want them to know that I gave it my all every game and always worked hard," Stanek said. "I hope people realize that will never give up during a game and will lay it all out on the line and I'll be a determined athlete trying his best to succeed."

Kelly said he wants people to remember him pretty much the same way. 

"I want people to know that I never gave up," he said. "There were a couple of games where we were down and we came back. There's always that hope to come back and finish."

Kelly and Stanek will try to lead their nationally-ranked teams to that big finish in Naperville, Ill. on Saturday.

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