/columns/around-the-nation/2016/peaking-late

September's stumblers now rolling

Albright, Mount St. Joseph, Wesley, Wisconsin Lutheran and Washington & Lee (below) are all trucking along after slow starts to the season.

No team sets out to peak in September.

Some of the first month’s most disappointing teams have been able to reverse their fortunes. Heading into the final month of the season, their goals set in August are still very much on the table.

In the preseason Top 25, Wesley was ranked 7th, Albright 16th, and Washington and Lee 20th. Those three teams stumbled out of the gate, each opening the season 1-2. The Wolverines and Generals bounced back and each team is in control of its playoff destiny. The Lions also rallied, but will need a little bit of help in order to repeat as MAC champions.

While the first few weeks were a letdown, the losses look better in hindsight. Albright fell to two of the best teams in the nation — Stevenson is undefeated and currently ranked 14th, while Salisbury is 6-1 and ranked 19th.

Wesley’s losses were to quality opponents — Delaware Valley and Christopher Newport are both 5-2. Washington and Lee dropped games to undefeated No. 9 Johns Hopkins and 4-2 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. The Generals lost to the Stags on a last-second field goal in a game they led 21-0 and never trailed until the final horn.

So how were these three squads able to bounce back so effectively, combining to win their past 13 games?

“We kept preaching after the non-con schedule that we played a great non-con schedule and we did that with the hopes of preparing us for bigger games down the road, preparing us for tougher competition, and that’s what it did for us,” said Generals coach Scott Abell. “You don’t really know in the moment that that’s what going to happen, but that’s what you hope. The battle-tested, out of conference schedule with who we played and the type of caliber of opponents is really starting to pay off. This group is very focused on what the end goal is and they won’t rest until they see it happen.”

The Generals are the lone unblemished team in ODAC play and can take a two-game lead over Randolph-Macon with a home win on Saturday. The beefed-up non-conference schedule was designed to prepare the team for the conference slate. This year, the Generals are playing with a big target which comes with a surprising 12-game ODAC winning streak.

“Coach has really instilled a mentality into us this year that we played a tough schedule,” said junior safety Michael Shields. “We hoped that would prepare us more than in past years playing easier games to start the year. We just really wanted to learn from those losses and use it in ODAC play.”

Wesley is still getting used to conference play, but can benefit this year from the Pool A berth that comes with winning the NJAC. Whereas in years past, two early losses would severely hamper Wesley’s Pool C playoff chances, the Wolverines still have their main goal in front of them.

“It was pretty simple. We had to forget about everything and focus on each week as a one-game season. The playoffs started in Week 4 for us,” said Wesley coach Mike Drass, who has led the program to 11 consecutive playoffs. “When we lost the second game, we said that every goal they had for themselves is still sitting out there. Our players truly responded to that simple philosophy of focusing only on ourselves and our opponent that week. I don’t think their confidence ever wavered.”

The Wolverines know the formula to avoid losing. It’s a matter of executing. Wesley turned the ball over five times in each of its losses. The Wolverines remain the most penalized team in the nation. If they can clean up those mistakes, especially at Salisbury on Nov. 5, they can extend the playoff streak to 12.

Albright entered the season with high expectations after running through the MAC unscathed in 2015 and returning key players at nearly every position. Then, training camp injuries decimated the roster. Quarterback Mike Knight was hurt in camp, but tried to battle through the injury. He was less than one hundred percent in the two losses. Alec Vignola took over at quarterback for the injured Knight in Week 3. Knight returned on October 15 and has split snaps with Vignola in the past two games. Both quarterbacks were hampered by the loss of three receivers and four running backs injured in camp. The attrition directly affected the Lions.

“We had a rough camp. There were massive injuries that we were trying to work through those first two games,” said Albright coach John Marzka. “We got healthy in Week 3 and we’ve been improving ever since.”

The Lions also had to replace their defensive coordinator and special teams coordinator after Mike Neale left to take over as head coach at Whittier.

“It took a couple of weeks on defense and special teams to find their groove and their confidence,” said Marzka. “By Week 3, everything started clicking.”

It took a “come to Jesus” meeting, according to Marzka, to make sure the season did not go off the rails after the disappointing start. On the Sunday following the Stevenson loss that dropped the Lions to 0-2, the coaching staff dismissed the junior varsity players from the team meeting and kept the varsity players in the room. There was an airing of grievances and a coming together.

“When you have expectations as high as we did entering the season and you start out 0-2, that’s kind of a huge shock I think to everyone,” said Marzka. “We told them ‘We’re on the cliff face. We’re either going to go off the edge of the cliff or climb to the top of the mountain. You’ve got to decide.’ To our players’ credit, we had great leadership in the room, a lot of guys spoke up, we got a lot of things out in the open about what we needed to change and what our focus needed to be.

“We had to get things out in the open before things spiraled out of control. To our players’ credit, at that precipice we made a decision that we’re done losing and we’re going to start playing the game the way we’re capable of playing the game. We noticed an immediate change at Monday’s practice and we never looked back.”

The Lions started bringing a game-day focus and intensity to practices. The coaches noticed a renewed sense of purpose, and the work the Lions are putting in during the week has paid dividends over the past five Saturdays, all victories.

“Winning takes care of itself if you do things the right way. You worry about winning Sunday through Friday, and Saturday will take care of itself,” said Marzka. “You can’t control the past, so don’t worry about it. All you can do is win the next play.”

In addition to these three teams that were ranked heading into the season, other teams have authored impressive turnarounds in October.

Wisconsin Lutheran opened the season 0-4, averaging just 13.75 points per game. Since then, the Warriors have reeled off three straight wins, scoring 40.3 points per contest. That included hanging 50 on defending NACC champ Lakeland on Saturday.

“We graduated 25 seniors. When the season started, we had a lot of young guys either playing for the first time or contributing in major roles for the first time,” said Warriors coach Dr. Dennis Miller. “It took a while for us to kind of find out who we are and get a personality. Now I think we’re doing that and playing a little better.”

The youth served the Warriors well. A senior-laden team with high expectations may not have been able to recover from an 0-4 start. Instead, Wisconsin Lutheran’s squad recognized that it is young and improving. They never worried about the final season record, instead focusing on the simplicity of winning each play.

“They probably were far more resilient than a team that was very veteran because they’re young. They’re experiencing everything almost for the first time,” said Miller. “What I’ve really liked about our guys is when we were down early and not winning any games, we came together and really adopted the idea of focusing on the next play, not looking ahead, and not lamenting about what happened in the past. The kids have really embraced that. We have great practices every day.

If the Warriors win out and current NACC leader Aurora stumbles, Wisconsin Lutheran could earn the first playoff berth in program history.

Sometimes, a turnaround comes down to one position. Once Mount St. Joseph settled on a starting quarterback, the Lions’ season changed course.

The Lions played three quarterbacks in the season opener. The platoon system did not work. Mount St. Joe averaged below ten points per game in three losses to start the season. After reviewing film from the third loss, the coaches felt that freshman Chaiten Tomlin separated himself from the pack. His coaches put their faith in the rookie, and he has surprised them by winning five in a row. He has passed for 21 touchdowns and three interceptions in five games as the full-time starter.

“In this modern era of football, a lot of it comes down to the quarterback. He’s only a freshman, but he’s playing pretty damn good,” said MSJ coach Rod Huber. “We’re playing right now with a lot of confidence. What changed the season as well was being able to run the ball.”

The offense has scored 47.4 points per game during the five-game winning streak. A win over Franklin on Saturday, coupled with a Rose-Hulman win over Bluffton, will put the Lions in the HCAC driver’s seat.

Some teams (see SCAC favorites Trinity (Texas) and Texas Lutheran) can enter the season with high expectations and let the season slip out of their grasp after a couple of unexpected losses. Others, like these five programs, found ways to either refocus or remain calm despite early unfavorable results.

“As a season rolls, your team is either getting better or getting worse. It’s obvious to me that we have taken huge steps the past four or five weeks in all phases of our game,” said Huber. “They’re a young team, so they’re very resilient. No one panicked. We came in and knew we had a couple of home games in a row that we could win, and we did.

“It’s amazing what a win or two can do for the psyche.”

Players’ Corner

Washington & Lee athletics photo

Michael Shields had two interceptions as the Generals throttled Hampden-Sydney, 52-7, on Homecoming weekend. Everyone knows about Washington and Lee’s prolific rushing offense, but it will be the defense that keys the Generals’ attempt to win back-to-back ODAC titles. The junior safety admits that he didn’t fall in love with football until he became a playmaker.

I think it was probably my freshman year of high school. I started playing real football in 4th grade and from then until 8th grade, I was an offensive and defensive lineman. I enjoyed the sport during this time but did not really love it as some of my peers did. My freshman year, I got the opportunity to play quarterback and ended up being the quarterback of our JV team due to some injuries. Having the ball in my hand every play was incredible and I was really able to appreciate the work that the linemen do that goes unnoticed. I think from 9th grade on is when I really fell in the love with the game.

The thing I love the most is definitely the camaraderie. Having a tight knit group of friends that I get to spend every day with playing the sport I love is a unique experience. None of us here at W&L or most D-III schools are playing football for the crowds or the free gear we get; we play because we love the game and we love the people who coach us and our teammates.

As part of my attempt to rekindle a love for football, I’ll be reaching out to players all season long to give them space to explain why they love the game. If you or someone you know would like to be featured in Players’ Corner this year, please reach out to me at any time.

What do you know? Do you know things? Let's find out!

There are so many worthy stories to be told and I can’t find them all on my own. Please share with me those stories that make you passionate about D-III football. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at adam.turer@d3sports.com. Thanks for reading!

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Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to D3football.com since 2007 and is in his third season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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