|DeAndre Wright eyes a big hole in Monmouth's win vs. Wartburg. He ran for 165 yards and two touchdowns on the day.
Monmouth athletics photo by Kent Kriegshauser Photography
By Adam Turer
The final score matters, but not as much as the experience.
It’s safe to say that there are about a dozen programs in Division III who can be considered marquee opponents year in and year out. With conferences expanding every year, those premier teams often struggle to find D-III opponents who want to face them during non-conference play.
Those teams courageous enough to schedule a Stagg Bowl champion or perennial playoff power can benefit from the contest in both the short term and the long term.
“My philosophy is this: You don’t get better playing bad people,” said Monmouth coach Chad Braun. “You go out and play two playoff-type opponents to start the season, you’re going to get better.”
His Scots did just that, falling to Wheaton in the opener then upsetting Wartburg. Both opponents were ranked in the top 18 at the time they faced Monmouth. The Scots hung close for one half at Wheaton, trailing 16-7 at the break. The Thunder pulled away for a 32-7 win, but the Scots took that experience into their Week 2 showdown with Wartburg. The defense put the clamps on the Knights en route to a 24-18 win.
“It’s definitely a huge boost for our guys. You come out of those two games 1-1, you feel pretty good,” said Braun. “We’ve probably played the toughest schedule in the nation right out of the gate. It gives our guys a lot of confidence knowing that we can play against some of the best teams in the country. We had plenty of flaws of ours exposed, too, and saw things we need to work on and improve.”
Other teams took on bigger challenges and took away lessons not reflected on the scoreboard.
Albright has won 26 games over the past three seasons, including a playoff victory in 2015. The Lions have been outscored 139-21 in their first two games of 2018. After losing to traditional non-conference foe Salisbury in the opener, Albright hosted Mary Hardin-Baylor. The Cru won the Stagg Bowl in 2016 and finished as runner-up last year. The 91-7 loss was memorable for a variety of reasons.
“I would like it to have been a closer game, obviously, but our guys didn’t quit or lay down for four quarters. We’re not going to see a better team like that and our guys might not in their four years here,” said Albright coach John Marzka. “The goal is to win the conference and get an AQ and hopefully get a chance to face a team like that again in the playoffs.”
Rose-Hulman opened the season on the road at Mount Union and lost 54-0. Scheduling the game was easy; the Purple Raiders called, and Fightin’ Engineers coach Jeff Sokol said yes.
“We wanted our guys to face large challenges to prepare us for the conference slate. I’m still optimistic that rolling the dice and scheduling these tough teams will pay off for us in the long run,” said Sokol. “I always felt like it helps a football program to prepare them for everything they face. For us, we want to go to national playoffs and we have to win our conference.”
The experience goes beyond that of the players. The coaching staffs and school administrators also have a chance to see the nation’s premier programs up close and learn what separates those teams from the rest of D-III. The games help in recruiting, too. Marzka and Sokol have been able to spend the past few years selling the vision of playing against Mary Hardin-Baylor or Mount Union to high school players.
“Our players and coaches now have a better idea of what a national-caliber type recruit and team looks like,” said Marzka. “It gives the administration a better picture of what a national championship team looks like.”
“Our coaches know we have to recruit more great players and our players have to work harder to get to that level,” said Sokol. “They know how much harder we have to work if we want to compete with them.”
The Fightin’ Engineers have won eight games each of the past three seasons and made the program’s first playoff appearance in 2016. They still have a long way to go.
“We wanted it to be an important thing for our guys to accept that challenge and prepare for it. We needed to be the best football team we could be that day. At times, we played really well. They just had so much talent,” said Sokol. “Guys who we know can make tackles are missing tackles in space against superior athletes who we hopefully won’t see again throughout the rest of the regular season. We blocked guys, they shed blocks and made plays. If any player from Mount Union played for an HCAC team, he would stick out. They have that at every position.”
Next year’s away game will give Albright an opportunity to travel to Texas, a state where Marzka and his staff are trying to cultivate more recruits. It helps provide exposure for Albright in a state where most MAC teams will never step foot. While several MAC teams spent Week 2 playing non-conference games against conference opponents, the Lions embraced the opportunity to schedule a second non-conference game.
With the addition of Alvernia, the MAC is now up to 11 teams. It was Marzka who introduced the proposal to not play a full conference slate in order to allow MAC teams to play a second non-conference game each year. The schedule featured nine conference games each of the past six seasons. Now, there is a rotating schedule based on the prior season’s results that will allow teams to play just eight conference games each season.
“We’ve had a fair share of success here over the last 11 years. If you ever want to be able to compete at a national level, you have to start scheduling teams that are national-championship caliber opponents,” said Marzka. “To me, I feel like you’re never going to have a chance to get there if you don’t start scheduling opponents like that.”
Fans or alumni might be confused to see these quality teams suffer eye-popping losses. But the benefits outweigh one Saturday afternoon on the wrong end of a crooked number.
“Some people around here probably thought I was crazy a little bit. I thought it would be a great opportunity for our guys to go out and showcase their talent on a national level,” said Braun. “If you go 0-2, you come out of those first two games and can still win your conference and get to the national playoffs, which is the goal every year for every team. I thought it would be a great experience for our guys to see two playoff teams in the first two weeks and our goals are still in reach.”
|Albright punter Kevin Goetz was one of the highlights of the day, although his 15-yard run on a fake punt was 2 yards short of a first down.
Albright athletics photo
This season, Around the Nation wants to spotlight players who have faced adversity while playing Division III football. As mentioned in the first column of this season, we all face challenges just to play D-III football. Some face more than others.
Already this season, Wabash players are facing unthinkable adversity, suddenly and shockingly losing their beloved teammate, brother, and captain Evan Hansen.
Co-captain Kyle McAtee was kind enough to share a few words about his teammate:
“Evan was Wabash. He was in a fraternity, the Sphinx leadership club, and a four-year starter on the football team. Evan and I were the same age and I wanted to be like him. He had an infectious smile and a phenomenal sense of humor. I was lucky to have known him. He’ll always be with me. Forever.”
Our thoughts are with the Hansen and Wabash families as they attempt to overcome this tragedy. Getting back on the field on Saturday at Kenyon should be cathartic for the Little Giants.
For any other D-III player struggling, I urge you to reach out to your on-campus counselors. It is a challenge to be a young man balancing academics, football, social life, the pressures of finding post-graduation employment, relationships, and family. As far as I know, every college and university provides counseling services. Do not feel that you are weak; do not feel that you don’t have time to fit it into your already overwhelmingly busy schedule. Make an appointment. Show up for an hour a week. Or two hours a week. Or however many hours it takes for you to get the readily available help you need. Do not try to bottle in your feelings. Do not feel that you will let your teammates or coaches or friends or family down if you need to take some time to clear your mind. The more you speak, the more you will discover how many caring people are willing to listen. There is no obstacle that is insurmountable. You matter. We care about you.
Trust me. I almost didn’t make it through the 2004 football season.
As a junior, I was trying to balance football with school, a job, and raising a baby. I was determined to not give up football after earning a starting safety spot. I was spread so thin and was so tired but felt that I would be letting everyone including myself down if I didn’t keep showing up. I was working so hard, but it wasn’t enough.
We had a weeknight practice on the turf field under the lights. I overheard a senior captain telling our defensive coordinator that he believed a talented freshman should take my starting spot. After all I had been through off the field and all that I had dedicated to the program, I was ready to give up.
After practice, I got in my car and took off through the winding roads of rural Virginia. Fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty. Winding through quiet curves approaching 90, not caring if I stayed on the road or wrapped my Saturn around a tree. I felt that no matter how hard I worked, it wasn’t good enough. That I was letting everyone down by sacrificing too much and trying to be everything to and for everyone.
The next day, I made my first appointment with university counseling. Dr. Sayre saved my life. The very first hour I spent with her was like pushing a boulder off of my shoulders. I’ll never forget the eye-opening comment that she made that changed my life forever. She very accurately diagnosed me as the kind of person who tries to carry all of the grocery bags from the car to the house in one trip. I kept seeing Dr. Sayre once a week, sometimes twice. She helped me balance all of the stress I was under. Sometimes, she would just listen to me vent for an hour. Sometimes, she would give me practical advice. Knowing that I had her as a resource was life-changing and life-saving.
There are plenty of national resources available, including 1-800-273-8255. Based on my experience, I recommend starting with your on-campus counseling services. Please, don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.
If you or someone you know has a story of overcoming and 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 Division III football. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at email@example.com. Thanks for reading!