To this day, some members of Bemidji State's football team know their senior captain only as "Spidey." They couldn't tell you that his real name is Jake Schmidt, or that his nickname comes from a bizarre incident during his first week on campus when a spider bite sent him to the hospital with blood poisoning.

Schmidt isn't a superstar on a Beavers team that is 6-1 and off to its best start since 2000. He is, however, central to the close-knit brotherhood that has helped drive this season's success, and symbolic of the kind of player it is built upon. In 2007, Schmidt came to BSU from his tiny hometown of Frederic, Wis., and joined the football team as a walk-on safety. Five seasons later, his dedication and persistence have set a standard for a team pursuing its first NCAA Division II playoff berth.

Coach Jeff Tesch has done a masterful job of revitalizing the once-lowly program, leading it to 104 victories in the past 16 years -- more than it had earned in the previous 32 seasons. He's done it with guys like Schmidt, who were overlooked by other schools and eager to make names for themselves.

Or, in the case of Schmidt, nicknames. In a nod to the spider bites that sent him to the emergency room three times -- and the single-mindedness that made him so reluctant to miss any time with his team -- he now wears a tattoo of a spider on his chest, accompanied by the German word ausdauer, which means perseverance.

"Apparently, I could have died from it, which I figured out later," said Schmidt, part of the "Gang Green" defense that has been the Beavers' backbone this season. "But I'm pretty stubborn, and I enjoyed the fact that people knew who I was. It made me feel like I belonged. Now, I don't know what I'd do without football and all the friends and memories I've made."

This season has added many pages to Schmidt's mental scrapbook. The Beavers rose to No. 20 in the Division II rankings announced on Monday, their highest placement ever during the regular season.

In the preseason coaches' poll, Bemidji State was predicted to finish eighth in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference. Though the Beavers returned several skill players from a team that went 7-4 last year, they had to replace all the starters on their defensive line. The newcomers have exceeded Tesch's expectations, anchoring a defense that is one of the stingiest in the nation.

Bemidji State is ranked third among Division II teams in scoring defense (12.4 points per game) and second in rushing defense (67.9 yards per game). With the upperclassmen providing support and encouragement, the younger players have been quickly integrated into a smart, versatile unit that can adapt on the fly. The Beavers also are highly disciplined; they are one of the least-penalized teams in the NSIC, and their ball-control offense limits the amount of time the defense has to spend on the field.

Tesch has followed that defense-first philosophy for about seven years, building it by recruiting players such as Schmidt. After the first spider bite left him with a stiff, sore leg and a red line extending to his stomach, a trainer had to force Schmidt to leave practice early to see a doctor. When another bite created the same symptoms on the morning of his first home game, Schmidt raced to the emergency room, received treatment, drove back to the stadium and ran to the field so he wouldn't be late.

"We generally get good, hard-working kids, and that's exactly what Jake is," Tesch said. "That spider thing was a weird deal; he had to go through it twice, but he made sure he stayed with the team. He's a guy that's really worked himself into being a good, solid football player, and he's given us leadership skills, too."

Tesch said the closeness of this season's team has contributed to its success and made it fun to coach. The young players are eager to improve, while the older ones -- including Schmidt and fellow senior captain Brody Scheff, tied for sixth in D-II with five interceptions -- share their knowledge.

They have progressed, Tesch said, in the three games since they fell 26-23 to No. 11 Minnesota Duluth for their only loss of the season. Schmidt's "Spidey" sense tells him the Beavers shouldn't look too far ahead. But in a season like this one, it's hard not to dream.

"It's always been my goal to make the playoffs," Scheff said. "That would be the ultimate. But the biggest thing is to just keep winning."

Rachel Blount •