|Johnny Davidson and Washington University have made a big splash in their first season in the CCIW.
Washington U. athletics photo by Danny Reise
By Adam Turer
The new kids on the block just wanted to compete in their first season in a new conference.
Both Eureka and Washington U. have exceeded any modest expectations and are in positions to claim conference titles in their first season in the NACC and CCIW, respectively.
The Red Devils won their first conference championship and made their first NCAA playoff appearance in 2017. Then, they departed the UMAC for the NACC. Through six games, including three conference contests, Eureka is unbeaten.
“We weren’t quite sure where we were going to fit in the new conference,” said head coach Kurt Barth. “So far, our guys have responded. It helps to have a guy like Le’Anthony [Reasnover] who can make something happen every time he touches it.”
|Sporting a 51-46 record in his 10th season as head coach at Eureka, Kurt Barth is the program's all-time leader in victories.
Eureka athletics photo
The senior running back has already surpassed the century mark, carrying 147 times for 1,052 yards and 21 touchdowns. The Red Devils are averaging 43 points per game in conference play. Eureka is far from one-dimensional, despite Reasnover’s 175 yards per game and 7.2 yards per carry. The Red Devils have allowed just one sack all season.
The passing game is a family affair, as the head coach’s nephews start at left tackle and quarterback. Senior Ryan Barth protects the blindside of junior Drew Barth, who has passed for 995 yards and nine touchdowns. He has completed 65 percent of his passes and thrown just one interception.
“We’re a close family. My uncle and I can talk any time we want. You don’t see that all the time, an uncle coaching his nephew who is the quarterback. It’s pretty awesome,” said Drew Barth. “In high school, my brother was my center. I wouldn’t have anyone else blocking for me. We get along pretty well.”
Drew and Ryan’s uncle has transformed the program that he once starred for as a wide receiver. In 2013, the program snapped a streak of 15 consecutive losing seasons. The Red Devils have posted three eight-win seasons in the past five years and are poised to make it four out of six this year. Barth already has more wins than any coach in program history. In addition to guiding the program into a new conference, he helped shepherd last year’s renovation of McKinzie Field.
“We’ve been coming to games for 10 years. I’ve known our quarterbacks coach my whole life,” said Drew Barth. “We’ve seen the changes and how [Kurt] has turned the program around immensely.”
About 175 miles south down I-55, the Wash U. Bears are also thriving in their new conference affiliation. After spending 2017 as an independent, the Bears have opened 4-1 in CCIW play. They host 5-0 Illinois Wesleyan in a Saturday night showdown under the lights.
“We’re trying to make a statement as much as we can in our first year in the conference. There is something that comes with playing the same teams year in and year out,” said Bears quarterback Johnny Davidson. “We didn’t have an identity as much last year. Conference games tend to have a little different feeling to them. There are a lot of close games. Anybody can win on any given day. Our mentality going into the practice week is that we have to give our all and put it on the line like we’re playing for a conference championship every week, no matter who the opponent is.”
|Drew Barth has finally won the quarterback job outright in his third year in a Eureka uniform.
Eureka athletics photo
After dropping their CCIW opener at North Central, the Bears have reeled off four straight wins, including last week’s 17-10 suffocation of Wheaton. The Thunder were held to minus three yards rushing and converted just one of 14 third down opportunities.
“Our defense was lights out,” said head coach Larry Kindbom. “If you had told me that we’d hold them to minus-3 rushing yards before the game, I would have told you that you were joking, because that just doesn’t happen.”
The victory was thrilling and proved that the Bears can handle the style of play that the CCIW is known for. The conference has routinely produced three Top 25 playoff teams in Wheaton, North Central, and Illinois Wesleyan, and includes one of the most dominant programs in D-III history in Augustana.
“It’s fun to be in a conference that has the history and tradition of putting out good football teams. We’re happy to be a part of it,” said Kindbom. “We thought the hardest thing would be week in and week out being able to play physical football.
“The coaching in this conference is absolutely awesome. Going in, we knew the history and the tradition of the CCIW. When I cut my teeth in college coaching, Augustana was the team to beat. You had to admire what Bob Reade did there. Augustana still stands out in my mind. I always appreciated the traditions.”
While players may have been chirping in the offseason about their new opponents, the coaches in each conference have been welcoming. Through the first half of conference play, the opposing players have quieted down, and the opposing coaches have been impressed and respectful of their new challengers.
“It’s been a good transition. You never know how things are going to be stepping into a new conference and how you’ll be treated. Guys have played with a little bit of a chip on our shoulder. Some people said we would struggle in the new conference and the guys took that personal. The challenge now is to not take it personal and keep doing what got us here,” said Barth. “The coaches have been great in our conversations before and after games. In the coaching world, relationships are critical and I look forward to developing these relationships.”
|Larry Kindbom is in his 30th season as head coach at Washington University.
Photo by Danny Reise, WUSTL photo services
In addition to the quality of football, the driving force behind these moves was location. Rather than make multiple trips to Minnesota each season, the Red Devils get to play the majority of their games in Illinois. The Bears also relish playing more games in the Chicagoland area. There are 35 Chicago-area players on the Wash U. roster.
“We have kids from 27 states on the team, but we have such a good base from Chicago. We like to think we’re Chicago’s team. Our Chicago kids know they can come to a school like Wash U and come back home to play two or three times a year,” said Kindbom. “Those guys have friends on all of the CCIW teams. We have enough of a base here. Those guys really do have an appreciation of the league that we’re in and can bring that appreciation to the rest of our guys who may not know. It’s fun for the parents, too.”
Drew Barth now gets to compete collegiately against a high school teammate, a running back at Benedictine. He never had the opportunity to compete against high school teammates in the UMAC. The Bears are having similar experiences in the CCIW.
“It’s very fun to compete against them,” said Davidson of lining up against his and his teammates’ former high school opponents. “It kind of brings you back to high school a bit, it brings back cool experiences from the past.”
There are no more eight to nine hour bus rides, no more leaving class early on Fridays and getting back late Saturday night or Sunday morning.
“It was a win for us all around. Hopefully, it really helps us from a recruiting standpoint,” said Kurt Barth. “We played three games in Minnesota, but we’re not recruiting that area very well. Now that we’re playing more in the Chicago area, it gives us a chance to recruit those areas even more. Hopefully, that will help us in the long run.”
Across the board, players and coaches from both programs were excited about the opportunity to establish themselves in a new, tougher conference. The instant success so far is not validation, but just makes the programs hungry for more.
“I think there was a lot of momentum. We wanted to build on that NCAA experience from last year. Our guys know how to prepare. We can’t overlook any team. We started 0-2 last year, then we had to go 1-0 every week. That’s what we’ve been doing this year,” said Drew Barth. “We really wanted to come into this new conference and prove that we belong in this conference. When we started to come in, a lot of schools were talking about how we didn’t belong. We’re starting to open a lot of eyes that we do belong.”
The last time they had an opportunity to win a conference title, the Bears claimed the SAA’s automatic playoff berth. Winning the CCIW was the goal from the beginning, knowing that it will take a focus on one play at a time.
“We had experienced what a conference championship is like as freshmen. Coming into this year, we had the same expectations, to wipe the slate clean, work hard and compete as much as we can,” said Davidson. We set the work ethic and expectations to win a conference championship and make it to the playoffs in the offseason. We knew the work we were putting in and what we wanted to get out of it.”
Each team has four conference games left. Even if they stumble and fall short of the conference title, this season they have already proven worthy of acceptance in their new league. The addition of playoff-caliber competition has raised the profile and strength of both conferences.
“We’re finding out that we can compete and we’re doing that. Our staff is doing a great job preparing us schematically,” said Kindbom. “We’re not trying to keep kids in a shell. They have to enjoy what this league is all about. The focus has been with our players one play at a time because they want to do well. I’m pretty happy that I don’t have to sit down and talk about not getting complacent.”
Barth echoed the same sentiment for his team: “I’m hoping our guys draw from that experience last year. You have to value each week and you have to finish strong. I promise you that none of these four teams are going to lie down and let us win a game.”
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!