Defending DIII champs North Central College face daunting road task

For the longest time, pretty much every Division III football team wanted to be like Mount Union, yet couldn't help but be a bit intimidated when given the task of trying to knock off the Purple Raiders from Alliance, Ohio.

The 13-time national champs, after all, have been one of the most dominant football programs at any level over the last 30 years, winning 11 national titles from 1996 through 2012 under former coach Larry Kehres. Mount Union added crowns in 2015 and 2017 and has a staggering 104-18 all-time playoff record.

While North Central College is far from achieving anything resembling those numbers, the top-ranked Cardinals will take the field Saturday morning at Mount Union Stadium with a growing resume of their own and with the knowledge they were able to outslug the Purple Raiders 59-52 in the second round of the 2019 playoffs on their way to the school's first football championship. The winner of Saturday's battle moves on to the 2021 national title game.

The Cardinals (12-0) lost a 41-40 heartbreaker in the 2013 national semifinals to the Purple Raiders but then stunned Mount Union with 21 straight points in the second half in the 2019 victory. In that shootout, North Central gained a then-school record 699 yards of offense, including a program-record 522 passing yards by quarterback Broc Rutter. Andrew Kamienski caught 12 passes for 256 yards and four touchdowns, while DeAngelo Hardy made eight grabs for 186 yards and Jake Beesley ended the contest with an interception in the end zone.

While Rutter, a Neuqua Valley graduate who would claim the 2019 Gagliardi Trophy as the top NCAA Division III player that year, has graduated, Kamienski, Beesley and a slew of other players from that championship squad are back and eager for another crack at the Purple Raiders and a chance to defend their title after COVID wiped out the 2020 season.

"Obviously we can look back on us playing them in 2019, but it's a completely different season this year," said Kamienski, a fifth-year senior who was named one of 15 semifinalists for the Gagliardi Trophy this year. "It's a completely different team we have, and Mount Union has been historically the best, so yeah, you could think they're intimidating. You'd like to think we're going to be afraid to go in there."

But the Cardinals not only have that historic win over the Red Raiders under their belts, they know playing a power like Wheaton College every year also helps prepare them for the best.

"It's nothing like we haven't seen. I mean, we play the No. 5 team in the country in Wheaton College," said the receiver, who caught one of three touchdown passes from Luke Lehnen in the Cardinals' 55-6 defeat of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute last week. "So it's a high level competition, and this is why you play the game. You want to beat the teams that have been known in DIII football for forever. These are the type of games as to why you play the game. This is why we're here and we're excited for the challenge."

The 13-0 Purple Raiders are ranked fourth in the nation, and needed overtime in their quarterfinal game against Muhlenberg last Saturday, advancing with a 35-29 victory after trailing by as many as 12 points.

North Central coach Jeff Thorne, who took over the program from his father John Thorne, in 2015, knows the national semifinal showdown at Mount Union will provide a tough test. He also knows he has plenty of talent and experience on his side. Saturday's winner advances to play either Wisconsin-Whitewater or Mary Hardin-Baylor (Texas) in the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl Dec. 17 in Canton, Ohio.

"You're right. I mean, they're the gold standard Division III football," Thorne said of Mount Union. "So, it's another great opportunity for our team to test ourselves against a team that's been doing it for 25 years, and at their place. It's an exciting opportunity. That's how we're looking at it and really can't wait to get on the road and get out there."

No one expects another 250 yards receiving and four scores from Kamienski on Saturday, but then again, you never know. The ground game, however, is also lethal, as Ethan Greenfield ran for 143 yards on 20 attempts and scored two touchdowns, reaching the end zone multiple times for the fourth straight game, in the rout of RPI.

"He's special. The best receiver we've ever had in program history," Thorne said of Kamienski, the Pingree Grove native who prepped at South Elgin. "He's just unbelievably talented, in so many different areas. But I think what really stands out with Andrew is the kind of person he is and the kind of teammate and leader he is. And then his toughness. He's a throwback; he's not from this era. He's just mentally and physically the toughest kid I've ever coached."

North Central running back Ethan Greenfield - here playing against Wisconsin-Whitewater in the 2019 NCAA Division III national championship in Shenandoah, Texas - remains a key cog in the Cardinals offense. Steve Woltmann/North Central College
North Central head coach Jeff Thorne celebrates with his team after winning the 2019 national championship against Wisconsin-Whitewater in Texas. Steve Woltmann/North Central College
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