|Familiar? Yep, it's safe to say North Central and Wheaton are familiar foes.
|The Cardinals took back the Little Brass Bell earlier this season with a 35-25 win vs. the Thunder.
By Ryan Tipps
So much for the element of surprise.
The field, the locker rooms, the game play, the atmosphere -- separated by only a few miles in Chicago’s suburbs, conference-mates North Central and Wheaton are as familiar with each other as any two teams can be. And they have generations of competitive history to back that up.
“There are no secrets: They know us, and we know them,” said NCC coach Jeff Thorne.
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These two institutions take part in one of Division III’s greatest rivalry games each year: the Little Brass Bell game. The matchup has been played for decades, they battle over a trophy (which was introduced in 1946), there’s tight geographic proximity, and, perhaps most importantly, the competition is intense. These teams wouldn’t be among the final 16 standing if they weren’t two of the best the nation has to offer.
“To make a rivalry great, you have to have all of those things in place,” said Mike Swider, who is in his 21st season as Wheaton’s head coach. “Our rivalry with North Central is as good of a rivalry as there is in America.”
The catch in 2016, however, is that no one has ever seen these two teams play twice in one season. That makes Saturday’s second-round game not one of unknowns but rather one of familiarities. The game scheme won’t be based off of a couple of games’ worth of video, but it’ll rest on adaptability and growth since the two teams first met six weeks ago in the regular season. That outing ended with a 35-25 North Central victory; though the Thunder gained more offensively, the Cardinals won the crucial turnover battle.
“In the playoffs, you’re typically getting teams you’ve never seen before or maybe you played them several years ago,” said Thorne, who has been with the Cardinals’ program since 2002. “So you’re going off of three games’ worth of tendencies and things you’re seeing on film. With Wheaton … we’ve got every game that they’ve played.
“The big difference isn’t what are they going to do but rather how are they going to adjust.”
In the playoffs, it’s not difficult to get players fired up. Even more so, when the opponent is your fiercest rival, motivation is a no-brainer. For No. 5-ranked North Central, 2016 has been particularly satisfying. Not only did the team sweep the regular season, but it also made it back to the postseason for the first time since 2013.
The current seniors remember well the heart-breaking conclusion to that 2013 campaign -- a one-point loss to Mount Union in the national semifinals on a snowy December day in Alliance.
“They’ve been able to see this up close, so they know what to expect to a certain degree,” Thorne said of those older players who made it deep into the playoffs. “But the younger guys don’t. … It’s exciting for the program to be back to where we feel like we should have been the past two years.”
Wheaton, a Pool C selection this year and ranked No. 13, is making its third consecutive trip to the playoffs. Swider and his players are excited for the chance to revisit their toughest game of the regular season. Rivalries are a positive thing to him. They’re vital to a campus’s energy, and they generate excitement among the team.
Despite losing in his first meeting against NCC this year, Swider doesn’t look at the rematch as “revenge” or “payback,” considering those terms mentally unhealthy. To him, it’s an opportunity.
“Revenge is a bad motivator,” he said. “We get an opportunity for a win, and we don’t have to sit on a loss for an entire year.”
Since that Oct. 15 game, Wheaton has grown – as it must – and has evaluated its strategy and personnel – as is crucial for development.
“The goal each week is to learn and to get better, to make progress,” Swider said. “You’re either getting better or getting worse, but you’re not staying the same. If you’ve stayed the same, you’ve gotten worse. We have got to get better each week, and hopefully we’re better than we were six weeks ago.”
That first game, Wheaton gave North Central some short fields to work with, putting the Cardinals in prime position to score. It doesn’t matter if those were mistakes that Wheaton’s offense made on its own or if they’re mistakes that were created by North Central’s defense, they were game-changers. There’s no question that that’s on Swider’s mind this week.
“Any time you have two teams that are very well matched, your turnovers are critical,” he said. “You get short fields or you give people short fields, and there’s an advantage there.
“The key to the game is going to be our ability to possess the football and not turn it over deep in our own territory. … These things cannot happen if we want to win.”
North Central, too, has improved in recent weeks. The offensive line has become more consistent as first-year starting guards Alec Licar and Dalton Ness, replacing two standouts who graduated last year, have settled into their roles. The defensive line, which was key in pressuring Wheaton quarterback Andrew Bowers, will again be sought out for success.
“We know what a great opponent Wheaton College is year-in and year-out, especially when you have to play them a second time,” Thorne said.
They may not be playing for their rivalry trophy, but the players, coaches and fans from these familiar foes will be fired up.
“The stakes are higher than in the regular season when we’re playing for the Little Brass Bell and a conference championship,” Thorne said. “Now it’s to keep our season alive and continuing on in the playoffs.”