The first look at next season

SALEM — You shoulda got ’em this year.

Mount Union and UW-Whitewater each had to replace significant chunks of their lineups for 2008, with the graduation of dominant senior classes. There were questions coming into the season, and frankly, the Road to Salem was as wide open as we’ve seen in years.

But now that the Purple Raiders and Warhawks have traveled that road, mostly in dominant fashion, once again, it’s fair to look ahead and wonder how anyone can overcome them.

Certainly in football there are upsets, injuries, weather and other factors that play into who emerges victorious at the end of a 10-game season backed by a 32-team playoff. That’s half the fun, nothing is a given.

But Mount Union started eight seniors today: QB Greg Micheli, RB Nate Kmic, T Luke Summers, G James Bird, TE Chad Reynolds, DE Joseph Millings, LB Chas Yoder and CB Daryl Ely. They also started 12 juniors and two sophomores, a nucleus that — while without their stars in the backfield — will likely be favored to return to Salem.

UW-Whitewater, which started three seniors (Ts Mike Sherman and Rob Gilbreath, and MLB Jace Rindahl), is even better positioned to make a run next season. QB Jeff Donovan is a junior, RB Antwan Anderson is a sophomore and RB Levell Coppage is a freshman. Altogether, Whitewater started 12 juniors, five sophomores and two freshmen in the Stagg Bowl.

One thing that doesn’t sound like it will be happening is a Purple Raiders-Warhawks regular-season matchup. Mount Union has nine conference games locked and UW-Whitewater has seven, and a game in the first week of ’09 and ’10 is possible. The teams played in that slot in ’02 and ’03, but Mount Union coach Larry Kehres was jokingly noncommittal after the Stagg Bowl.

“I was stupid enough to wear a stocking cap this week and get caught on video,” he said, referring to an incident at the Stagg Bowl luncheon where Kehres’ picture was shown on a big screen. “But I’m not stupid enough to schedule Whitewater in the regular season.”

Perhaps its a show of respect from Kehres, who now has a rival program capable of beating his team in any given season. But if UW-Whitewater is considered on Mount Union’s level, or close to it, that’s not good news for the rest of us. Sure, we have our conference titles to chase and playoff games to participate in, but if there are two dominant powers, and no one could stop their inexperienced rosters from getting to Salem, what makes us think we’ll be able to stop them any time soon?

Are we destined for more of the same?

The floor is open for well-supported arguments for teams that might break the Purple cycle.

Sideline Guy: With Nine Hours to Go

[Note: This is an entry of an ongoing Stagg Bowl blog by sideline commentator Frank Rossi. To read his previous entries, click the following links:

1) 12/17/08 – The Road (Sky) to Salem;
2) 12/18/08 – Cold Weather, Warm Reception;
3) 12/19/08 – A Night of Celebrations; or
4) 12/19/08 – Meet the Teams (and Miss Virginia).]

We’re under nine hours to kickoff as I write this, and I can’t get to sleep. It’s an exciting moment for everyone involved with Division III Football — it’s a family gathered together in Salem for an annual ritual of stories, food, drink, camaraderie and, yes, football. There’s an infectious feeling that grips fans in Salem to get them to keep coming back — like the former Carnegie Mellon University athletic director who I met today who, at a very old age, decided to drive from Charlotte, North Carolina, to Salem after his flight to the area was canceled. Nothing was going to stop him from coming to the Stagg Bowl — and I later found out that both the Stagg Bowl and the basketball championships held here are annual “must-attend” events for this man. He loves Division III, the teams, the family and everything else that comes with this experience. For some reason, I can foresee myself becoming just like this fine man.

We are all gripped right now by the economic downturn the country is facing daily — and my fear was that it would lead to major budgetary cutbacks in the events of this week. I’m thrilled to report that if any cutbacks occurred, I have no awareness of what they were. Accommodations are first class, as I’ve stated in this blog all week — and that’s provided us a sort of working holiday around here. For a transplanted Floridian who had no Christmas spirit coming into the trip to Salem, I suddenly am moving toward that spirit with less than a week to go before Santa. Better late than ever, I guess.

I took it easy for the remainder of the day after we set up the equipment for the Stagg Bowl broadcast. Pat Coleman and I camped out in the Hospitality Room and talked with the other coaches and the NCAA Selection Committee members who came together one final time before the big game to celebrate a successful 2008 season and playoff cycle. Even while the Division I FCS Championship Game was on the television in the background, the folks around us all wanted to know who made the All-American Team and what our predictions for the game are — the Richmond/Montana game was secondary here.

Regardless of the results of Stagg Bowl XXXVI, I will be walking the sideline with a different perspective today. Last year, I walked the sideline as if it were a business venture. I had fun, but I was somewhat robotic during the cold and rainy weather. This time, I’ve spent three days around everyone involved — so I’ll be much more invested in the game and trying to provide the relevant information and stories from the field. ESPN isn’t bringing a sideline commentator, so I will have the rare opportunity to potentially interview the coaches before/after the halftime break. I’m really excited and nervous right now because I don’t want to disappoint everyone involved with the media aspects of this event or the listeners who will rely on our broadcast. If I’m nervous here, I can only imagine the butterflies that the players are experiencing right now.

Yet, what I know is this: we’ll all breathe a sigh of relief after the game is over with an abundance of memories and friendships that we formed in Salem and Roanoke. That makes us all winners this week — regardless of the scoreboard. Because of this, I know where I’ll be on December 19, 2009, already.

I’ll report one more time here after the game. Enjoy the matchup.