Coming into their own
|Jack Nicholls has become
Mount Union's leading receiver, with 31 catches for 506 yards in
his past five games after grabbing 35 catches for 502 yards in his
first seven outings.
Photo by Dan Poel for d3photography.com
By Brian Lester
Concern was in the air for both Mount Union and Wesley, although the teams experienced it at different points in the season.
For the Purple Raiders, the top-ranked team in the country and the defending NCAA Division III national champion, their concern crept up prior to the start of the season. Ten starters on offense had to be replaced from a team that enjoyed a perfect run to a title.
Yet, mixed in with the concern was a healthy dose of confidence.
First-year head coach Vince Kehres, the son of legendary Mount Union coach Larry Kehres, knew he could count on his quarterback, Kevin Burke, the lone returning starter on offense.
"It was huge to have him back because quarterback is the most critical position on offense," Kehres said. "I'd rather have 10 new starters at the other positions and have an experienced quarterback than have a new quarterback and 10 returning starters. He helped bring those other guys along and got them all on the same page."
Burke has certainly does his part to make things work, with his latest display of offensive brilliance unfolding this past Saturday.
The junior signal-caller tied a career-high in touchdown passes (five), ran for one touchdown, threw for 326 yards and rushed for 83 as the Purple Raiders throttled No. 12 Wittenberg 56-21 in a second-round playoff game.
It's not just the presence of Burke, though, that has helped Mount Union not miss a beat on offense this season. The coaching staff has also played a pivotal role.
"Our offensive coaches have done a tremendous job of developing the new starters," Kehres said. "They built off the strength of our offensive line and put guys in a position to succeed. Everyone has stepped up and played well."
Wesley, ranked No. 15 in the country, didn't feel the pressure of concern until mid-October. It was beaten 24-17 on the road by Rowan on Oct. 19 and fell to 5-2 on the year.
The playoff hopes of the Wolverines hung in the balance. But like Mount Union, stirred into that concern was plenty of confidence that hope would not fade for good for a program that had won 18 playoff games over the past seven seasons under coach Mike Drass.
"Even after that loss, I knew we still had a chance," said Drass, who is in his 20th season as the head coach at Wesley. "But we knew we had to win the rest of our games. I thought we really came together as a team and played with a sense of urgency. We became very focused."
Wesley hasn't lost since, winning five consecutive games, including a 23-15 victory over No. 24 Ithaca on Saturday in the second round of the playoffs.
And so, because both Mount Union and Wesley erased their concerns, they are both in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs once again, this time against each other.
The Purple Raiders are making their 22nd consecutive quarterfinal appearance. Wesley is making its fifth consecutive appearance.
|Sosthene Kapepula leads
Wesley with 99 tackles and also has five interceptions and 10 pass
Wesley athletics photo
Mount Union and Wesley have met twice in the playoffs, both times in the semifinal round (2009 and 2011). The Purple Raiders won both games. It won't be easy preventing them from winning this game as well.
"They are the No. 1 team in the country and they deserve to be No. 1. It's going to be a great challenge for us," Drass said. "We have to be at our absolute best to beat them, and that is what we will try to do. We're excited about the opportunity."
There is excitement at Mount Union as well.
Senior wide receiver Jack Nicholls is one of the players who stepped into a starting role this season and he has embraced the opportunity to be in that position. Nicholls has caught 66 passes for 1,008 yards and 11 touchdowns, helping to fuel an offense that is cranking out 544.2 yards per game, on par with the 543.8 yards-per-game average in 2012.
"We were confident we could still be a very good offense," Nicholls said. "We knew we had the talent and skill to do it. We have a lot of guys who can make plays on this team, so it takes the pressure off, and having a quarterback like Burke has made a huge difference, too."
Nicholls also credits the help former wide receiver Chris Denton has provided to him, both last year as a player and this year as a student coach.
As for having a shot to advance to the semifinal round, Nicholls is ready to seize the moment. He said he and his teammates are focused on the task at hand.
"We know we have to be focused every week. If we slip up at all with our focus or effort, our season can end," Nicholls said. "We want to keep going and I learned a lot last year about having to go above and beyond to be ready for a playoff game. We are preparing just as hard as we would any other week."
Kehres expects his Purple Raiders to be challenged for 60 minutes Saturday against a Wesley team that has more than its share of talent.
Joe Callahan has thrown for 2,966 yards and 21 touchdowns while Jamar Baynard has moved into the starting lineup at running back and has two 100-yard games in the team's last three outings. Steve Koudossou leads all receivers with 67 catches for 864 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Sosthene Kapepula leads the defense with 99 tackles. Jordan Wescott has racked up 92 tackles. Wesley averages 397.9 yards per game and allows 297.4 yards per outing. The Purple Raiders are giving up 243.6 yards per game.
"They have tremendous players and are very talented," Kehres said. "They have a lot of guys who can make plays we have to make sure we are disciplined and not make mistakes or they will take advantage of them."
Drass said Callahan has been a steady presence for the offense and noted the defense has been solid in all aspects on that side of the ball.
And while he knows his team will have to play at another level to have a shot at knocking off the Purple Raiders, he has plenty of confidence in his players.
"I'm proud of what our team has done up to this point. They have worked hard and have played well as a team. We won't change much with our preparation. Our guys have been in the playoffs before. They know what it takes to win. We know it's going to take a great game to win, but we will be prepared to play on Saturday."