North Central College middle linebacker Nick Slezak has had quite a journey around the football field the past three seasons.
Even though he's a senior, the best part could still be coming.
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On Saturday Slezak scored his first collegiate touchdown as he returned a fumble 22 yards in the nationally ranked Cardinals' 53-14 victory over Augustana on Senior Day in Naperville that secured an undefeated regular season and an outright College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin title.
Slezak's return of a rolling option pitch gave North Central (10-0, 7-0 in CCIW) a 20-0 lead less than six minutes into the game and the defense its first score this season.
"I was just debating on jumping on it or trying to pick it up and scoop it. I was really freaking out that I was going to kick it away, but I got a lucky bounce and it popped right in my hands," the Glenbard South graduate said. "It was special to score on defense, especially having the first one this year."
North Central has won eight straight CCIW titles, four outright. The Cardinals joined their 2008 and 2010 teams as the only undefeated ones in the regular season.
Now they want to surpass the best performance in the NCAA Division III playoffs by the 2010 quarterfinalists. The 32-team playoff bracket will be announced at 5 p.m. Sunday.
"It's sad that it's our last regular-season game, especially for all of the seniors, but I'm glad we played a good game," Slezak said. "It's pretty emotional for all of us, but we still have the playoffs and all that, so we're not done yet."
This year's team has 22 seniors, 14 who started Saturday, with a 41-6 record over their tenure. Fifth-year senior quarterback Spencer Stanek and senior kicker Nick Dace added to their places in the record books Saturday.
Stanek had four touchdown passes in breaking the single-season record of 30 by Kam Kriss in 2006. Already the program's all-time leading scorer, Dace set a single-game school record with four field goals on four attempts.
"This is a great senior class. We expected that they could do this kind of thing, but expecting it and actually having it happen are two different things," North Central coach John Thorne said.
"Right now, we have to worry about getting past Round 1. We've had a lot of great, great teams, but this one's got some intangible that's hard to identify. I really hope it happens for them. They're great kids."
Stanek threw TDs to Chad O'Kane for 10 and 46 yards on the Cardinals' first two possessions, a 3-yarder to Peter Sorenson and a 4-yard shovel pass to Ryan Szudarski on the final play of the first half. Leading 33-7 at the half, the Cardinals had one second-half TD on Matt Randolph's 1-yard run.
Stanek has 32 TD passes with just 1 interception for a squad averaging 44 points.
"It's really cool to break (the record), but it's great receivers, a great O-line that plays all year," Stanek said. "It's easy not to throw many picks when you don't have a lot of pressure or receivers are making great plays."
As a sophomore, Slezak was a reserve wide receiver. He switched to starting free safety in 2012 and now is a starting middle linebacker, a position he played while going both ways at Glenbard South.
"Our receivers are great so they thought I could play on the other side of the ball. The coaches did a great job of helping me transition," Slezak said.
Slezak had defense bests of eight total tackles and four tackles for loss. Trey Hartema and Richard Zirngibl had interceptions and Alex Tripp had 1.5 sacks.
North Central has won the last eight meetings with Augustana (5-5, 3-4) and nine of the last 10 after the Vikings won 23 straight from 1991-2003. The Vikings nearly became the first team this season to score three TDs on North Central's defense but the reserves held on fourth-and-goal from the 1 with 7:14 left.