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Seeing red

<p>North Central quarterback Spencer Stanek (6) looks past a hand in his face to fire a pass to a Cardinal receiver. | Jon Cunningham~For Sun-Times Media</p>

North Central quarterback Spencer Stanek (6) looks past a hand in his face to fire a pass to a Cardinal receiver. | Jon Cunningham~For Sun-Times Media

North Central’s football players are due for a crown, some of their most steadfast followers say. They’re energized by the possibility that the day could come soon.

The Cardinals will take to the field Saturday in Alliance, Ohio, when they will meet up with the top-ranked University of Mount Union Purple Raiders in the semifinal round of the NCAA Division III playoffs.

Both teams bring 13-0 records to the semifinals. Ranked no. 4 in Division III, North Central already has advanced farther than ever before, besting Bethel University 41-17 in the quarterfinals on Dec. 7 in St. Paul, Minn.

Mount Union has taken 11 national division football titles, holds the nation’s longest winning streak at 28 games, has won 76 straight home games and advanced to the quarterfinals of the division playoffs for 19 consecutive years.

Professor David Horner teaches chemistry and physics and is one of North Central’s faculty mentors to the team. He sees the players often, and not just the three who are physics or engineering majors.

“I think they’re kind of excited to see how we stack up against the best,” said Horner, who holds an endowed chair as the Harold and Eva White Distinguished Professor in the Liberal Arts. “Mount Union is kind of the gold standard of division football.”

Horner noted that three years ago, when this year’s senior players were freshmen, they went up against University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, which went on to clinch the national title after the Cardinals mounted that year’s most formidable challenge.

“That senior class knows that we’ve done it before, and we can do it again,” said Horner, who will attend the game Saturday.

Cardinals cont’d

Avid football fan Chris Canova, who lives in south Naperville, is hopeful as well. The 1991 North Central graduate played linebacker for the Cardinals all four of his years on campus. He said he’s “ecstatic” that the squad has come close to the title this season.

Crediting the team’s senior leadership on both offensive and defensive squads, Canova said the team has overcome obstacles and worked together exceedingly well, developing a confidence that has carried them far. And he gave an extra nod to quarterback Spencer Stanek.

“I’ve heard some other people say, ‘Why hasn’t he been a Heisman candidate?’” he said.

As a North Central quarterback from 1971 through 1974, Dennis Sullivan led many offensive drives in home and away stadiums. Now the Oswego resident drives for Naperville Trolley, along with his full-time sales job with Ozinga Ready Mix Concrete, Inc. — and follows the Cardinals. Sullivan will be on the trolley Saturday evening, taking riders on a tour of holiday lights displays, but he’ll watch the game before hand, and he goes to all of the home games.

“That’s a must for me,” he said.

Sullivan said he sits with friends, relatives and classmates about 30 rows up on the 35-yard line in Benedetti-Wehrli Stadium to cheer the Cardinals on. He wouldn’t mind watching a victory from afar, though.

“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “It’s exciting to see this group of young men translate their passion into pride for the school, the team, the community.”

Broad fan base

North Central athletics director Jim Miller has been a part of the campus, and the football program, for 30 years, so he has seen the transformation of the program into a national power first hand.

As a player and assistant coach in the program before taking over the athletics department in 2005, Miller is still in awe of where the program stands as it heads to Ohio Saturday.

“Having coached with (the last five coaches in the program), to see both sides of the ledger, to understand how our program was so down in the 1960s and started turning around incrementally, to be the AD at a time when the football team has made it to the final four teams in the country, is really cool,” Miller said.

Miller isn’t the only excited person on campus. Though the college is in D term, there are still many students still on campus. Many of them will be on a fan bus heading to Alliance for the game. Many more of them, as well as faculty, staff and other fans, including Canova, will be at Bar Louie in downtown Naperville for a screening of Saturday’s 11 a.m. game.

“People are really excited about it,” Miller said. “Normally, you would expect that from the students and the people around the football team, but it’s more with faculty and staff and the alums.”

The game will also be streamed live on ESPN3.com.

“Obviously, we’re excited, telling everybody that we know to watch us on ESPN,” senior offensive tackle Greg Whalen said. “It’s the only opportunity that we may get, so it’s exciting. I think everybody is super pumped for that opportunity.”

Miller knows that the advance of social media and the fact that there is access to live stats, video and radio feeds for the games has helped keep alums around the world plugged in to the success of the program.

“That’s accessibility that you never had before,” Miller said. “The athletes are reaching out from other teams on campus. Every team here is following them. There are a lot of older alums that never dreamed we could be in the top four in college basketball and football in the same calendar year. Personally, it’s exciting to know what it means to all of those folks. It’s humbling and rewarding in that respect.”

116 years and counting

While its program doesn’t enjoy the same cachet as such perennial college powerhouses as Notre Dame and Alabama, North Central has counted the game as a fundamental thread in its fabric for more than a century. The downtown Naperville school brought home its first state title in 1904, just seven years after the program was established at the institution then known as North-Western College.

“In the first decade of the 1900s college football was a really big deal,” said history professor Ann Durkin Keating, who co-edited “The Encyclopedia of Chicago” and holds the Dr. C. Frederick Toenniges endowed chair at the college, in a news release. “Our team and fans traveled all over, by rail and automobile, to play and cheer on the athletes. Beyond Naperville and the EUB (Evangelical United Brethren) Church it was through football that people in metropolitan Chicago learned about us.”

The sport played a significant role in the 1920s debate over changing the school’s name to end confusion with Northwestern University in Evanston, Keating said. In addition to wanting the college to be distinguished academically, school leaders had grown frustrated with Chicago newspaper editors, who often confused the two schools on the sports pages.

That’s no longer a problem for Cardinal fans, who have watched this year’s team grow up together over the past four years.

“It’s been a very fun group to watch,” Canova said.

Sullivan noted that more than once in the past few years, the championship round has come down to Mount Union’s Purple Raiders and UW-Whitewater’s Warhawks, whose primary team hue also is purple. It’s a phenomenon Sullivan describes as “the purple people-eaters” — and he finds the change this year refreshing.

“It’s kind of nice to see another color coming,” he said. “Like red.”

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