|Last year, Hanover won the HCAC automatic bid on a tiebreaker, but this year the Panthers are in the drivers' seat.
Hanover athletics photo
By Adam Turer
The first time the Hanover Panthers made the Division III playoffs, Matt Theobald was there.
It was 1995, and the senior defensive back helped lead the Panthers to back-to-back Indiana Collegiate Athletic Conference championships, culminating in a playoff trip to Mount Union.
After graduating, Theobald embarked on his coaching career, joining the Hanover staff.
That coaching journey came full circle in December 2015, when Theobald left his post at rival Franklin to take his first head coaching job, appropriately at his alma mater.
The last time the Hanover Panthers made the Division III playoffs, Theobald was at the helm.
The 2018 Panthers shared the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference title with Franklin and Mount St. Joseph in a three-way tie, but earned the tiebreaker and Pool A playoff berth.
This year’s team is in the driver’s seat to capture an outright HCAC crown, and Theobald sees shades of his playing days when he observes his players in practice.
“We’re playing Hanover football like we used to play back in the 90’s,” he said. “That was my goal when we came here, was to do that.”
Wayne Perry, Theobald’s head coach, set the bar high by winning 174 games in his 26 seasons. He also led the Panthers to the playoffs in 1997, 1999, 2000, 2002, and 2003. When he retired following the 2007 season, he was the winningest coach in Indiana college football history.
“Wayne Perry, he is Hanover football. He’s the godfather of what we do,” said Theobald. “I think it’s important that our guys understand the traditions that we have. He created the blueprint.”
Theobald became the third Hanover head coach since Perry’s retirement, and inherited a program coming off of consecutive 2-8 seasons. He brought back some of the red, white, and blue traditions from his playing days, and has his former head coach speak to the team in training camp each year.
“When I was at Hanover and we were winning conference championships, we had a swagger and a pride in Hanover football that needed to be rebuilt. We’ve tried to recreate that identity,” said Theobald. “Coach Perry did it real simple, he just tried to outwork everybody. We were in the office late on a Sunday night, breaking down every line and stunt by hand. He taught me to hire good guys and trust in them and believe in our system. That’s what we do.”
A pair of 4-6 seasons in Theobald’s first two years built up to last year’s 7-4 playoff campaign and set up this year’s true breakthrough.
“We’ve got a great group of seniors. These are the guys who came in with us four years ago and really bought in and changed the culture,” said Theobald. “These guys work their butts off every day in practice. We’ve had three weeks of great practice and energy, and that’s what good teams do, they practice great.”
On Saturday, the Panthers avenged their lone 2018 HCAC loss by trouncing Mount St. Joseph on the road, 27-3. Hanover has allowed a total of 20 points through five straight HCAC wins, improving to 7-1 overall.
“It always makes every game a little more important,” said senior linebacker Dakota Manion of defending the HCAC title. “You’ve really got to work a little harder because you know that you’re going to get everybody’s best. That’s really helped us throughout the season and made our practices great each week.”
The energy levels at practice are set by Manion and junior linebacker Kyle Treber. Their enthusiasm in practice sets the tone for Saturdays. Their energy was on full display in Week 9, as they sacked Chaiten Tomlin seven times while holding the Lions without a touchdown in a game for the first time since November 2, 2013.
“We love our defense, we love how we get after it,” said Manion. “Whenever we get after the quarterback, it’s always a fun game.”
Manion enters his final two regular season contests with 195 career tackles. Treber still has another full season to play and already has 262 career stops.
“Our practices are about energy, having fun, showing guys that we care, that we want to be out there, that it’s a fun time and we love being out there. That’s how we stay together. Camaraderie is a big thing for this team,” said Treber. “We’ve just got to stay focused. We have two big games. We just need to stay focused, do what we do best, and just have fun doing it.”
The swagger is back in the program, thanks in large part to these two rangy linebackers. They motivate and create opportunities for teammates like freshman Devonte Hardiman, who leads the team with 5.5 sacks. Manion and Treber set the tone day in and day out, from offseason workouts through late-season practices.
“Mentality-wise, we’ve got two alphas. They are the standard-holders,” said Theobald. “They practice so well and they work so well together that it drives everybody else to be at that level. They are the Mike Singletary and the Peyton Manning of our defense.”
The Panthers arrived ahead of schedule in 2018. They hope that the playoff experience can catapult the program to a string of conference dominance, like that 1995 team laid the foundation for the following decade.
“Getting a share of the conference championship for the first time in 15 years was a pretty monumental thing,” said Treber. “We focused on getting in the weight room, working on our conditioning, getting better. Getting into the playoffs, seeing it, getting the experience was really good. Coming into this year, I felt like we were better off because of it.”
Seeing a perennial contender like North Central opened the Panthers’ eyes. It was reminiscent of Theobald’s playing days, when facing Mount Union in the tournament let the Panthers know what it takes to become a playoff regular.
“We got a shock last year when we made it to the playoffs. We got a tough North Central team and they really set us up to know what it takes to be that tough, physical team that can make it in the postseason,” said Manion. “That really gave us a big step to get up to that level.”
This season featured non-conference contests against fellow 2018 playoff teams Centre and Maryville, with the Panthers splitting those games. The HCAC schedule was extremely back-loaded. The win over Mount St. Joseph was exciting, but sets up a winner-take-all conference showdown at Rose-Hulman followed by the annual Victory Bell game against rival Franklin. There is still plenty of work to be done and the goals are higher than just winning the most games in a season since 2003.
“I think everybody knows what’s at stake right now. We’ve really been bringing it,” said Manion. “The practices have been intense, we’ve had a lot of energy, a lot of fun flying around, doing our jobs, making sure we’re ready to play.”