St. Thomas finished seventh in the nine-team MIAC and had an overall record of 2-8 in 2007. It was the worst football season for the Tommies in 37 years, and Don Roney resigned after a decade in charge of the program.
Glenn Caruso had brought some respectability to Macalester football in two quick seasons, and was hired to replace Roney. Caruso spotted a computer ranking that had St. Thomas at No. 206 among 240 NCAA Division III teams, and he hasn’t forgotten it.
Saturday, St. Thomas thumped Linfield (Ore.) 38-17 in the D-III semifinals. It was the second time in four seasons that a group of revered Linfield seniors had been stopped in the semifinals.
Asked if the disappointment of not reaching the national championship game would be one remembrance of these seniors, Linfield coach Joe Smith said:
“I will remember them for excellence. Very few teams have made that championship game … I would say three in the past 10 years, including [St. Thomas].”
You think the NBA has a balance problem with one team (Golden State) at 24-1 and another (Philadelphia) at 1-25? That’s nothing compared to Division III football.
Mount Union, a Methodist-affiliated, liberal arts college with 2,300 students in Alliance, Ohio, and Wisconsin-Whitewater, a state university with nearly 11,000 students, have split the past 10 D-III titles — six for Whitewater, four for the Mighty Mount.
Those schools played one another in nine of those games. The only outsider was St. Thomas, which lost to Mount Union 28-10 in 2012. And now the Tommies, 14-0 with an average point differential of 52.5 scored to 9.9 allowed, are back to face Mount Union, 14-0 and 53.6 to 7.5.
After Saturday’s victory over Linfield, Caruso mentioned the No. 206 rating that he inherited and said: “Three years later, we were No. 5. And I can assure you that going from No. 206 to No. 5 is not as difficult as going from No. 5 to No. 1.”
Caruso paused, which doesn’t happen often with him in a post-victory news conference, and said:
“Or, in this case, from No. 2 to No. 1. We are thrilled to have gotten back to Salem [Va.] for the second time in four seasons. Check me on this, but for Mount Union, I think it’s the 20th time in the 23 years that it has been in this game.”
Close. The Purple Raiders will be playing for the 19th time in Salem’s 23 Stagg Bowls.
The NCAA created Division III in 1972. The first 10 Stagg Bowls were played in Phenix City, Ala. It moved around for the next decade — Kings Island, Ohio; back to Phenix City; and Bradenton, Fla. — before finding a home in Salem in 1993.
The arrival of the Stagg Bowl in Salem coincided with Mount Union’s first national title game (and victory). Since then, the game has been played without Mount Union four times: 1994 (won by Albion), 1995 (Wisconsin-La Crosse), 1999 (Pacific Lutheran) and 2004 (Linfield).
One season earlier, in December 2003, St. John’s won a second Division III title (to go with two NAIA titles) for coach John Gagliardi, with a stunning 24-6 victory that ended a 55-game winning streak for Mount Union.
The Purple Raiders have lost seven of their previous 19 Stagg Bowls: six to Whitewater, and the one to St. John’s, the Tommies’ archenemies of MIAC athletic venues.
How did the Johnnies, a team known more for athletes with outstanding football sense than physical might, negate the power of Mount Union a dozen years ago?
Jerry Haugen, the Johnnies defensive coordinator then and now, said this week: “We knew we had to try to take away something, and decided it was the run. We had some great players on the defensive line — Damien Dumonceaux, Ryan Weinandt, Jeremy Hood, and Cam McCambridge was a terrific inside linebacker.
“That let us control the middle of the line, and Mount Union hadn’t dealt with that too often. They were averaging 542 yards, and we held them under 300 .
“We got the big play on the goal line, with [Mike] Zauhar’s 100-yard interception, but just as important was this: We did enough on offense.
“Blake Elliott was able to have some runs and [quarterback] Ryan Keating made enough plays to let us put together first downs when our defense needed a break.
“St. Thomas is really good … we saw that up close twice this season. When the Tommies get a possession, they have to hold the ball for a while. You can’t keep giving it back to Mount Union, not with the explosive offense that team always brings.”