The St. John’s football team had reached the 2019 Division III national semifinals by winning a home-field shootout with Aurora (Ill.), followed by a road rout at Chapman in California and a 34-33 survival at Wheaton (Ill.).
The Johnnies were on the road again at Wisconsin-Whitewater, six-time D-III champions, on Dec. 14. The Warhawks kicked a field goal with 2:10 left for a 35-32 lead, and then six seconds later, St. John’s was starting at its 42-yard line.
“We were going to win that game,” junior center Nick Neumann said. “Jackson was going to lead us down the field, as he had done so often.”
That would be Jackson Erdmann, a senior known to be a humanitarian off the field, and observed to be as feisty as a lanky quarterback can get on the field.
And then Erdmann threw a contested pass on first down, and it was wrested away for an interception by Whitewater’s Matt Anderson, an All-America linebacker, and that was it:
The Johnnies were done. Neumann’s four senior partners on a much-honored offensive line were done:
Left tackle Ben Bartch, first-team All-America, now with Jacksonville as a fourth-round draft choice; left guard Karl Rude, two-year starting transfer from St. Cloud State; right guard Dan Greenheck, three-time All-America and also a Neumann teammate at Cretin-Derhan Hall; and right tackle Josh Juaire, a hard-working, depth-chart climber.
Four seniors and Neumann, an all-MIAC first-teamer and with numerous other honors, while playing with a torn ligament in his braced right knee.
“Looking for the replacement for Jackson at quarterback and the starters to go with Nick on the offensive line … those were going to be our two highest priorities for spring ball,” Johnnies coach Gary Fasching said Friday.
The coronavirus shut down St. John’s in mid-March, and spring football with it.
“We have a lot of questions we need to answer, and spring practice was going to be a big part of that,” Neumann said in April.
Now, the virus still infects, and takes with it the urgency for those decisions. St. John’s players — an astounding 221 will receive uniforms — are set to arrive on Aug. 24, with two weeks of workouts and then actual practices starting on Sept. 8.
Tentatively, the MIAC plans to have a shortened schedule of conference games next spring. If it’s five games or fewer, Neumann and other players will not use up a year of eligibility, enabling them to return for a full schedule (perhaps) in the fall of 2021.
Neumann’s plan for now is to be back with the Johnnies for the real 2021 season, although paying those fees for an extra semester for fine private college in non-scholarship Division III is considerably more of a hardship than riding free for an extra semester with the Gophers.
”If it’s more than five games, I’m probably not going to play in the spring,” Neumann said.
St. John’s has not lost all hope the virus could be under control by early next year and the historic final football game with St. Thomas — originally scheduled for Nov. 7 at U.S. Bank Stadium — could be played in Zygi’s dome in April or May.
“I was thinking early in the year how great it was going to be to have that last game against the Tommies at our place, the perfect college atmosphere,” Neumann said. “Then, Gary and our AD, Bob Alpers, called the players to a meeting to tell us the game was being moved to U.S. Bank Stadium.
“Alpers said the advance interest they were getting in the last game made a lot of people confident that we could be playing in front of 50,000 fans.
“The players looked at each other and we said, ‘Let’s do that.’ ”
A final St. Thomas-St. John’s game in a spring mini-season wouldn’t draw like that, but one last time against those hoity-toity Tommies before they go off to Division I?
“I would want to be on the field for that one,” Neumann said.
Write to Patrick Reusse by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org and including his name in the subject line.