Read & React: The long road of independence

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The Bears won their only non-conference game of 2018, opening the season with a fourth straight Founders Cup victory.
Danny Reise/WUSTL Photos

By Adam Turer

Thomas More entered this season as an independent, knowing that every game was essentially a playoff game in the Saints’ quest for a Pool B bid.

Those plans were quickly dealt a swift blow, via a 46-yard touchdown pass from North Carolina Wesleyan’s Nate Gardner with 46 seconds remaining in the Battling Bishops’ 35-28 Week 1 win.

Where do the Saints go from here?

Larry Kindbom has an idea. His Washington University Bears were in a similar position last year. Wash. U. spent 2017 as an independent, one season after earning the SAA’s conference title and Pool A playoff bid. The Bears played a bear of a schedule, facing five conference champions.

“That’s how I set up our schedule last year. We knew we were playing five conference champions,” said Kindbom. “I told our guys that you’re trying to win five conference championships this year. We used that [as motivation].”

That 2017 schedule included matchups against UW-Whitewater and North Central and road trips to Wartburg, Washington and Lee, and Case Western Reserve. The Bears lost five of their first six games, but finished the season 3-6. They also learned that they are not too far behind those other championship-caliber programs.

“The thing that the kids are really pulling out from last year is that when we would lose a game and go through the film, there were things we could have done to make those plays better. They didn’t have players or units that were so much better than us, and our kids saw that in playing good team after good team,” said Kindbom. “Seeing those opponents beat teams in the playoffs and looking back and seeing what we could have done differently to win those games. We know they’re good, but they didn’t beat us just because they were good. They beat us because they executed and we didn’t.”

The Saints traveled 571 miles to N.C. Wesleyan to open a season that features six more road contests and just three home games. Couple that with a young squad featuring first-year starters at several positions, and 2018’s challenges were evident immediately. The Saints fell behind 21-0 before rallying to tie the game at 28 and earn a chance to go ahead with under two minutes to play.

“Hopefully more than anything, our guys realize how important each play can be. Seeing our guys battle to get us back to having that chance was great. At the same time, if we come out in the first quarter and play like we did the last three quarters, we’re not in that situation,” said first-year head coach Trevor Stellman. “We can’t let inexperience or travel or any of that other stuff play in to what we’re doing. Every game is a playoff game for us. I don’t care if it’s your first game as a college player or your 31st, you’ve got to play on the same level.”

No team wants to start the season behind the proverbial eight ball, especially a team in need of that Pool B playoff berth. But getting a loss behind them in Week 1 still means that there are nine more opportunities ahead. They key will be if the Saints can put that loss behind them, and how quickly.

“I think the biggest thing is moving past it. If we sit around and think about our chances being gone, than the season can end very quickly in a downward spiral,” said Stellman. “The way I see it, we have nine really good opponents left and still an opportunity to get where we want to be.”

Kindbom is in his 36th season as a head coach and is still continually striving to learn what Stellman is attempting to figure out for the first time this week.

“The only important play is the next play, the only important game is the next game. We have to look at it that way as coaches, too. It’s not just shop talk for our kids,” said Kindbom. “Win, lose, or draw, the next game is so important because we don’t want to get caught up. As long as we can stay competitive. When you lose, you’re disappointed. If you really believe in the next play, you can get over the losses.”

After starting last year’s independent season with a loss to Carnegie Mellon, the Bears struggled to turn things around. But, eventually, they finished the season on a high note. They opened 2018 on another high note, defeating rival Chicago to win their fourth straight Founders Cup. After a Week 2 bye, the Bears will begin their first run through CCIW play. While conference play may seem less daunting than a schedule against conference champions from all over the country, the CCIW currently boasts a trio of Top 25 teams.

“I’m excited about the CCIW because it’s a good conference with good coaches. It’s still going to be hectic and chaotic because we haven’t played a lot of the teams and there’s not much history,” said Kindbom. “Our promise to these guys in the conference is that we will always be competitive.”

Thomas More is on the opposite end of the spectrum, learning to navigate life without a conference. Wash U. struggled and fell well short of a return to the playoffs during its 2017 beast of a schedule. But the Saints are not giving in or giving up yet.

“At the end of the day, it just comes down to playing football. Anybody can travel anywhere to play. Our guys now having one week of travel under their belt will help us a little bit more moving forward,” said Stellman. “The nice part about football is you only get to play once a week, but that’s also the bad part. You have a week to stew on what happened.”

On tap

Here's what to watch for on D3football.com this week.

Later today-- New Top 25 poll released

Monday--Around the Nation podcast with Pat Coleman and Keith McMillan and Team of the Week weekly honors.

Tuesday/Wednesday--Feature columns.

Thursday--Around the Nation column.

Friday--Quick Hits, and another edition of the Around the Nation podcast.

Saturday--You know what Saturdays are for.

We've got great content coming at you all week, every week. Follow along and get to know D-III football beyond just your favorite team, and don’t forget to use the #d3fb hashtag on social media.

If you have ideas for an upcoming column or just want to talk some D-III football, get at me at @adamturer on Twitter or adam.turer@d3sports.com.

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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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