There were winners and losers Saturday in a Division III quarterfinal at Bethel's football field, but mostly there were gladiators. It was an afternoon when the challenge to play this difficult game was multiplied by conditions that screamed for the wearing of hooded parkas and fur-lined boots.
Real fur … perhaps retrieved from the carcass of a Yeti.
The temperature at kickoff on the plateau in Arden Hills was a minus-1. The field was composed of a substance that was neither grass nor dirt, but more like a giant slab of crumbling concrete.
Into this miserable combination of severe cold and treacherous footing came unbeaten North Central of Naperville, Ill., with its senior marksman Spencer Stanek at quarterback, and unbeaten Bethel, without its junior dual threat Erik Peterson at quarterback.
Peterson, the MVP of the MIAC this season, separated his right (throwing) shoulder in a second-round victory over Wartburg last Saturday. Seldom-used senior Tom Keefe helped win that one, but the demands on him were raised Saturday — with the conditions and the opponent.
How about North Central, Bethel coach Steve Johnson was asked a half-hour before Saturday's game?
"They are really good,'' he said, and you could tell he really meant it.
The start was promising for Bethel. Stanek's first pass was dropped by star receiver Peter Sorenson and the Cardinals went three-and-out. Bethel then turned loose its three running backs — Brandon Marquardt, Marshall Klitzke and Jesse Phenow — and gashed the North Central defense to move inside the 10.
"We were open to the end zone down there on a counter sweep, and Marshall slipped, and we wound up with a field goal,'' Johnson said. "A touchdown right away …''
His voice trailed off, but a touchdown right away might have shaken North Central's faith a bit that it could stop Bethel's fierce running attack. Instead, Bethel had to take a field goal, and that was the Royals' lead for the day.
Stanek came out for his second possession and hit Ryne Rezac for 41 yards and then went over the top to Chad O'Kane for a 34-yard touchdown.
Suddenly, Bethel was the team wondering what had hit it. That remained the case throughout afternoon.
The final was North Central 41, Bethel 17, sending the Cardinals to the national semifinals for the first time. They will play on the road vs. dynastic Mount Union in Alliance, Ohio, next Saturday.
Bethel was trying to get to the semifinals for the third time. The Royals lost in that game in 2007 and 2010 — both to Mount Union.
The chance for the Royals to hang with North Central would have been greater if Peterson were available. He had taken an injection to see if playing was feasible, but the shoulder didn't feel right and the possibility of having it slammed onto this cement-like field … the risk was too great.
It's also problematic that a healthy Peterson could've changed the result.
Stanek came in completing 74.7 percent of his passes and with 39 touchdowns passes in 12 games. North Central's league — College Conference of Illinois & Wisconsin — doesn't have a reputation for difficulty, but those gaudy passing numbers looked legitimate.
Stanek was well-protected and, after that first drop, Sorenson (seven catches for 109 yards) became an exceptional target. Running back Ryan Kent matched Sorenson's 109 yards on 28 carries, including four short trips for touchdowns.
North Central did all of this without a turnover. Bethel had five, with Keefe throwing two interceptions and losing two fumbles.
The killer came quickly: Stanek hit those two big passes for a 7-3 lead, and on the next possession, Keefe dropped a snap while in the spread formation and linebacker Nick Samuelson recovered.
This time, North Central went 39 yards on five runs to make it 14-3, and Bethel was slipping uphill for the remainder.
What was most impressive for Bethel was the sight of 500 people on the home side of the field — putting on their thickest winter wear, standing, encouraging, and for the most part staying until the end.
"This community [Bethel] is special,'' said Phenow, a senior running back from Richfield. "Athletes make up about 25 percent of the student body, and everyone knows what it means to have support.
"They were there for us again, even on a day like this.''
Patrick Reusse can be heard 3-6 p.m. weekdays on AM-1500.